You are trying to rewire your brain.
You want to be one of those people who requires little—who sits on their porch on the weekends and watches the bees pollinate the goldenrod. You want to save money, and eat cheaply, and use your time to observe the way the wolf spiders move through the thick grass.
When people ask how you’re liking it here, in this small Alabama town, especially coming from such a big city before, you want to say that at first you miss so many things, but now you’ve forgotten what they were.
For now, you are trying to lie.
Date night in a small town: a plethora of babysitters from the daycare and nowhere to go. Until 5:00 P.M. on Saturday, you are still asking each other, Where…? The restaurant they call Mexico? Or the steak houses, where you eat fried catfish for three times the price and agree that it wasn’t worth it? The Indian restaurant in the gas station? No, you agree, you need novelty, even the semblance of it, even a drink at the dive bar in town, so that you enter the empty hall and look at the liquor on the shelves and ask, innocently, for a glass of house red.
They do not serve wine.
An old fashioned, then?
Not that either, though the bartender admits with a dose of self-mockery that it is, indeed, the most classic drink.
So it’s whiskey on ice from a plastic cup, and a bottle of Bud from the beer fridge, and a table near the empty stage, and a few locals playing pool in the back like it’s all they’ll be doing until Judgement Day, and you, regarding the postered walls, waiting.
You become distinctly aware that the café in town is catering to that little hole in your chest. Craft beer. Avocado toast. Sandwiches that cost more than Jack’s for four—but that is what you’re paying for, isn’t it? The café is just getting started, you think… Or maybe it’s on its way out, since most of the other 3,432 residents do not have that little hole. They do not need to spend $10 on a tuna sandwich to feel complete. They have not heard the microbreweries on the labels of the cans, and they do not feel disappointment in the drip coffee selection and the absence of those caramel macchiato and chai lattes, which, though you didn’t order them, were part of the ambiance.
The café is catering to that little hole, with their wooden décor and their dog slideshow and the trivia nights, and you love them for it—
—and will it ever be enough?
For his birthday, you buy your partner a wood pellet pizza oven. A metallic wonder; a belly and four legs and a chimney flue. The only pizza in town, unless you count the gas station—which you don’t. The only problem is that you can’t buy dough—not those glorious balls in plastic you used to grab with little thought from the prepared food section of Harris Teeter or Trader Joe’s or Safeway, the way you can’t buy so many things: fresh salmon, black lentils, dried seaweed. No, not unless you want to drive. And so, pizza, that takeout wonder you used to order every Sunday, becomes a meal of effort. And yet, you know that it will never taste as good, not with every chewy slice kneaded and risen and stretched and baked.
On the weekends, you go to Jack’s. A little bit in a cup for the baby, and a milkshake for the toddler, and your Rocky Road, which remains in your hand just long enough for a single bite before the toddler trades—and by trades, she means perching your cup by her side on the rocking chair and sticking the milkshake between her legs and alternating glorious sips and spoons. Customers flow into and out of the door. You know some of them—students, or people in town you’ve encountered at the vehicle registration office or the Christmas choral performance—and many of them are strangers. You love the rocking chairs, extra wide with big arms, and the way you feel you’ve really reached the South. And this, in a fast-food restaurant you’d never heard of before September, where in the mornings you buy pancakes and buttered grits and biscuits dripping oily puddles on the napkins and decide this is the best breakfast in town, as if there are options. Let’s go to Jack’s, you say, and the toddler can walk you there, that straight shot down Washington Street. Somewhere. Nowhere. A chair on a porch. Home.
…How beautiful, the South in spring. Only March, and already seventy degrees, sun on your face, pollen dripping down the windshield on wet mornings. Picnics at the playground. Beers on the porch, popsicles in the driveway. Your children making floating bouquets in the baby pool. Back home, they freeze in their North Face jackets and expect one last snow.
A song comes out, “Fancy Like” by Walker Hayes, and you’re surprised to find you already associate with it. Simple pleasures. The importance of the people next to you—the only people around.
Have you really come so far?
…And yet, there is another feeling that comes with those early notes on the guitar, so that at times you change the channel or turn the radio off and listen to the silence of University Drive.
Oh, that you might sit in a casual dining chain and speak to a waiter and choose between shrimp and battered fish and blackened salmon.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author of the queer young adult novel Tink and Wendy, which recently won the Foreword Reviews Gold Medal for YA, as well as the forthcoming queer young adult novel Robin and Her Misfits. Kelly has published many other books for adults and young adults, including the chapbook An Inventory of Abandoned Things, which won Split/Lip Press’s 2020 Chapbook Contest. Her short pieces have been published in or are forthcoming from Boulevard, Southern Humanities Review, Daily Science Fiction, and many other literary magazines. Kelly is the Assistant Professor of English at the University of Lynchburg, and she also teaches Speculative Fiction and Short Story Writing for Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. Kelly received her PhD in Fiction from Florida State University in 2021. You can find more information about her at www.kellyannjacobson.com.