A deep sigh came over Jason as he pulled off the highway onto route 11. He was close and could feel his back tingling as if his whole spine had fallen asleep. This happened every time he headed into a small town, no matter the location. His hometown had tainted similar places through memories of loneliness, frustration, and undeserved yet expected sympathy. Due to this small-town avoidance syndrome, he had missed housewarmings, weddings, and most family gatherings over the years. But for Jason this felt like a worthy sacrifice to maintain a comfortable distance from his childhood. Anxiety was an easy excuse to turn around, but he knew this time must be different. It was unavoidable.
The car’s backseat was filled with clothing & books to the point where most surrounding vehicles had been rendered invisible during the long drive north. Jason never noticed. He rarely checked his blind spots even on a good day. Water bottles were strewn across the floor in front of the passenger seat, along with a half-drank, now spoiled fruit smoothie from earlier in the week. Burger King bags had joined this pile during his 4-hour drive, when Jason told himself there were no other options, but in reality he simply couldn’t contain a craving for chicken fries. A single bottle of wine laid on the seat itself.
The 24-hour name-brand gas station swiftly came and went as Jason lit a cigarette for the final stretch, having triggered his Pavlovian response once the Mobil was in his currently imperceptible rearview. This cigarette would ordinarily last exactly until the 3rd & final stoplight.
He slowed down as he approached the ominous sign he hadn’t seen in almost a decade: ‘Welcome to Warwick: No war, all wicks.’ The awful, outdated slogan induced a heavy, smoke-filled, somber exhale.
The first stoplight: a remnant of a busier time that had become unnecessary since the fire. In his youth, this would barely generate a speed reduction, but right now he appreciated the pause. Overpowering his instincts, Jason finally continued after that first light turned green for a third time. When passing the first house on his left he found something shocking about the still-functioning farm, with a tractor parked in the distance beyond the chicken coop right over the fence, a few yards off the road. Having not seen cows or horses in years, Jason stared for a moment before realizing he was no longer used to the extreme smell that came along with their presence. Forgetting the cigarette in his hand, he quickly rolled the windows up, accidentally bathing himself with smoke, then put them back down just as fast.
The second light and first sign of human life. Another car passed on its way out of town. The fellow driver woke Jason out of his daze as he glanced down and had a moment of panic, remembering the empty gas light came on before he got off the highway. He flicked the cigarette out, knowing the only gas station close to town was about to come up on his left. As he pulled in, there were no longer any signs of life.
This was a far cry from the station Jason passed ten miles back. It was more of a shed than anything, with multiple warped boards on every side remaining in desperate need of a paint job, even with the half-hearted white streaks that were clearly a recent addition. He wondered if this place even took credit cards yet. And if it did, could it be trusted? Any chance they knew what cyber-security was out here?
Jason got out of his car and started debating if it was self-serve when he got startled by a voice from behind the shed.
The raspy voice grew angrier, yelling “Closed!”
Standing at the clearly functional pump, Jason glanced at his watch, helplessly looked around knowing there were no other options and said “It’s only 5:20.”
Noticing the barely legible wooden sign propped up by dripping paint cans, Jason’s real-world experience made him wonder how a gas station could get any business being open 9 to 5. Then he remembered that filling up your tank was one of many mundane activities that functioned as planned family outings around here. He could hear echoes of the older generation of men who prided themselves on avoiding the dreaded rigid ‘city-schedule.’
A woman emerged from the shed, and with a look of recognition said “I’ve got 4:59” in a soft voice.
She appeared to be in her 70’s, a beautiful plump woman standing no more than 5 feet tall and wearing a flowery blue dress that could have been in rotation since the 70’s. The current look on her face showed a lifetime’s worth of taking charge, undeterred by the deferential expectations of her youth. This was confirmed as her presumed husband hurriedly came around the corner. To see a tall man in a plaid shirt and ripped overalls cower to this woman’s hushed tone put a smile on Jason’s face. Especially this far upstate. The husband and wife discussed something quietly before he came over to the pump.
He mumbled “cash only,” clearly demeaned as his wife watched closely. The man waited to see if Jason could comply with this restriction or would just leave them alone.
Jason opened his car and scrounged together a few dollars, figuring that would be enough to get him back to the highway and 21st century commerce. He pulled his head out of the car and waved over: “seven dollars of regular?”
The woman in charge said “of course honey” without moving a muscle. Her husband slowly dragged his feet over, kicking up the dry, dusty parking lot in the process.
As he put the handle away, the man started to walk back to the shed before locking eyes with his superior and stopping dead in his tracks. He turned and gave a halfhearted “thanks for your business – please come back again,” then scurried away. Defeated.
Jason returned the thanks as he got back in his car. The woman waved genially, projecting an appreciation her husband had failed to effectively fake.
Once back on the road, the cause of the first two pointless stoplights became visible. The remaining solid brown bricks were covered in an occasional streak of soot, two sides broken up by a collapsed roof in the center that had turned a once enormous factory into two nearly disconnected large ones. The remaining grids of windows that faced the road contained alternately shattered or stained panes of glass, covered in smoke and/or the yellow grime of time.
Even when Jason lived here no one spoke of the fire, despite remaining surrounded by remnants of their lost industry. Clearly nothing had changed. If there was no money to replace the welcome sign, then there was certainly no way to rebuild or repurpose the old candle factory that gave this town real purpose for the first couple years of Jason’s youth.
Oddly enough, the burnt façade reminded Jason of the city, and the various renovated buildings that now contained overpriced lofts.
Five miles later, after what seemed like an eternity of driving to Jason, the enormous, nearly empty lots of land that mostly belonged to a single resident gave way to the center of Warwick. Route 11 turned into Main Street for about one mile. The current businesses were always a curiosity, as the revolving storefronts on the ‘outskirts’ of main street reflected passion projects of friends the landlord currently owed a favor to. A knitting store. A very specific fish-themed jewelry maker. A gallery showcasing a decent artist that would likely remain unappreciated. These were the original Etsy shops.
What looked like a large white farmhouse in the middle of the street had a large black and white sign proclaiming ‘diner’ resting on a bench on the front porch. The single restaurant in Warwick served just about everything and had been a constant since Jason was born, just passing through different hands as the years demanded. Randy’s had once been Ethel’s had once been Daniel’s had once been Tom’s. But this place never went out of business – the head cook just changed as others passed away, retired, or moved. Those who passed away or retired were memorialized in a gallery on the wall.
Jason pulled over across from Randy’s to take another pause. He could not believe how far he had made it. Into Warwick. Where he had not stepped foot or rolled rubber for nine years. The memories came rushing back, and he was surprised how many of them were pleasant. Daniel always knew Jason’s favorite type of omelet – bacon & sausage, no cheese – and Becky the waitress was his first crush when he was 10. That gallery with the large street-facing window now housed a couple blue and yellow modernist portraits that had replaced the hobby shop’s hanging model airplanes and stacks of board games. Jason bought his first home soldering kit there and smirked thinking of the time he opened the back of the radio and tore it apart, assuming he could put it back together. Then the pleasant reminiscence ended as he was reminded how dearly he had paid for that broken radio. But he got it working about two months later, and the still-functioning radio now sat among the most prized possessions in his trunk. His first engineering victory and sole surviving keepsake from his childhood.
The third and final stoplight was in view, intimidatingly awaiting his approach. Glancing over at the moderately expensive bottle of wine he bought based on Gina’s recommendation, Jason saw another excuse to delay his arrival. He knew a $3 six-pack of Shins would be more appreciated. Even though he wouldn’t drink it anymore, remembering a favorite drink, even one he could never forget, would be a better gift than wine that would simply sit on the counter until the tag was re-written and the bottle re-gifted. Jason turned the ignition off and got out of his car. A short walk towards the general store, supermarket, pharmacy, and coffee shop seemed like the best idea.
A loud bell attached to the door rang out as Jason walked into the hybrid store. The two high school girls behind the counter immediately looked over and silenced themselves. The stock boy never broke his momentum, continuing to fill the cooler with Shins. Jason noticed no one was wearing headphones, neither girl had a phone in her hands, and the radio – real radio, not streaming – was eerily playing Benny Goodman over the speakers. Based on this scene alone it appeared the town had kept even the children from technology and Jason couldn’t decide if that was enviable or terrifying. As he walked over to the cooler, one of the girls spoke up.
“Are you Jason Catamount?” She inquired. The other girl looked at her friend annoyed as they both stood rigidly, waiting for an answer.
“Yes.” Jason stated harshly, still moving but keeping an eye towards the counter.
The cashier cautiously continued, “So I guess you’re back for…,” trailing off as her friend lightly backhanded her arm behind the counter.
After a brief quizzical glance, Jason returned to his mission, immediately tripping over the stock boy in the process. This boy – truly a boy of no more than 13 – fell onto his side into the fetal position that comes from being knocked over while crouching into the bottom shelf of a cooler. As Jason looked down, a flash came into his mind of himself laying helpless on a bedroom floor. Frazzled, Jason instinctively leaned down and reached his hand out to help the boy up.
‘Oh God I’m so sorry’ felt like too strong of a reaction, and Jason wasn’t sure if he would offend anyone using ‘god’ like that. Would a simple ‘I’m sorry’ sound too stiff and unapologetic? Maybe ‘my bad.’ Did kids still say that? Did kids in this town ever say that? He did. Just ‘I’m so sorry’ would be fine. Yes. A simple apology with a simple modifier.
As Jason returned to reality, he had already helped the boy to his feet, whom was now standing and apologizing to Jason. Silent assistance must have felt weirder than saying any of the phrases he had debated. Suddenly and rudely he blurted out “can I have a six-pack of Shins?”
The boy reached back into the cooler. As he handed over the beer, Jason recognized the guilt with a hint of fear on this kid’s face, especially while handing him some beers. There was an unmistakable symmetry between the two of them in that moment, both equally eager to blame themselves for any hint of disruption.
Jason now had the beer in his hand and figured it was best to leave this interaction as it was, having learned long ago that talking too much was far worse than walking away when given the choice.
Once the six-pack was dropped on the counter, the second cashier rang up the purchase on the heavy-keyed register, while her initially inquisitive friend grabbed a bag.
“No bag” Jason stated with a forced smile and friendlier tone, immediately worrying the young girl would take this as a rejection, due to annoyance with her questioning him when he walked in. Trying to get out of his head, Jason reached for his wallet, then became concerned this place also took cash only.
The anxiety was getting worse the closer Jason got to his destination and the more he talked with others. He knew he would not be able to have any meaningful conversation today, but he still had no choice other than continuing his journey. Pausing himself, Jason silently counted "1... 2... 3..."
Reluctantly handing the cashier his card, he assumed he would have to walk out of the store empty-handed. Seemingly noticing that Jason was uncomfortable, the girl cautiously said, “We have a $10 minimum,” replacing one concern with another as his eyes saw $4.89 on the register then began scouring the store for any item worth more than $5.11.
She quickly added “don’t worry about it” as her friend returned the earlier favor and hit the cashier's arm lightly, causing a sense of panicked guilt to successfully reach the fourth and final person standing in this small shop.
Jason grabbed his card and headed towards the door, suddenly worried by the pattern of sympathy these girls and the woman at the gas station had shown him.
“Mr. Catamount!” He heard behind him. Jason paused without turning around, hoping there would not be any more questions. “You forgot your beer.”
Jason silently turned around, grabbed the beer and scurried out of the store, briskly heading back to his car. He opened the door, slammed it shut and threw the six-pack next to the wine bottle among the garbage populating his passenger seat, knocking more water bottles onto the floor.
The flashbacks continued. Jason was once again sitting in his car, on main street in Warwick, having a minor panic attack. At least it was minor for now. He stopped. He breathed. He said to himself it would only be an hour or two before he left. He audibly counted “1… 2… 3…”
The longer Jason panicked, the longer he would be in town. This realization pushed him to start the car and place it into drive. He sat there for a moment with his foot on the brake. Still breathing heavily but slowing himself down… slowly.
A horn blared as Jason almost hit someone pulling back into the street. Looking before he pulled out is one of the few safe driving techniques he typically practiced, but he couldn’t focus on anything but forcing himself to move forward right now.
The near accident negated all the calming breathing practices Jason’s doctor had taught him, but he went right into the road anyways after the other car fully passed by. He caught himself speeding towards their bumper and suddenly hit the brakes. Almost immediately, the car was crawling at five miles per hour. Then he slammed the brakes again, bringing the car to a hard stop. Luckily, he was kind of close to the final red light. But this wasn’t why he stopped.
The Bar had creeped into view. A perfect encapsulation of everything he hated about this town. Full of lonely and frustrated drunks looking for undeserved sympathy. And it had the worst name ever. The Bar. Reflecting the laziness of Warwick even when it was thriving. In just two words. No one wanted to think, they just wanted to be told what to put where on the factory line. Then they wanted to go drink a beer at The Bar. This mindset never left, and it was what Jason hated most about his hometown. Uninspired and afraid of change.
The left blinker flashed, urging Jason to turn onto Catamount Road. At this point his father was less than 100 yards away. He just wasn’t sure if it was at The Bar or at his house.
Jason sat at the light as it turned green, then yellow, then red, then green, then yellow, then red. He counted five of these cycles as another ineffective attempt at meditation, trying everything to not look at The Bar or the Catamount Road sign.
Jason was lonely, frustrated, uninspired, and often drunk. Complaining constantly, craving sympathy at every turn. Afraid of leaving his beloved city, afraid of change, and now sitting in his car terrified of facing his father.
About 100 yards away, Jason’s mother sat by herself, calmly thinking of how she would tell her son his father had died. Looking at the clock, she was not surprised he was almost three hours late, but still remained hopeful.
Another horn blared behind Jason. He glanced up at the mirror and saw nothing but himself.