There's a younger woman staring at me. The cowboy hat. Must be the hat. Or maybe the swollen face. Or the strange pile of books. She's wearing a gray sweatshirt and those painted-on black workout pants undergraduate females seem to wear like a uniform.
I try not to notice, try to ignore it. But, well, she looks like Audrey Hepburn, circa 1967's Two for the Road. And I see no boyfriend built like Albert Finney, no guy who may or may not get upset at me for, well, checking out my watcher.
And then I give up, quit everything I'd planned on doing that Saturday night.
I push the books piled up on the cafe table aside, push aside the brownie and the mug of Java, and open up the laptop case.
There are stories to tell, fragments of legends and folktales, things I've witnessed in this town worth writing about. There are vignettes of beauty and mystery along the spine of every small college town's Book of Life.
And if I'm being watched in a one-horse Midwestern town, by a woman who looks like Audrey Hepburn, from across a crowded coffee shop at five o'clock on an overcast Saturday, I should at least try to document some of the paradoxical dynamic that makes Oxford Fucking Ohio an interesting place to call home...
* * * *
Off came the wifebeater.
And then another tee-shirt hit the breeze, adrift and ripe, like a wet fart through cheap underwear.
Two drunken men, covered in jailhouse ink, were ready to man dance in the middle of the goddamn alley over something imbecilic and petty.
Both twenty somethings had been scorned by the same 16-year-old trailer park Lolita. And both men forgot all about the statutory rape and disturbing the peace raps that often follow fights over underage sex partners.
Cheap ink, tattoos meant to convey toughness in a small town where hard is defined by the ability to survive a few months locked up on a drug charge. Necks aflame with gothic fonts, shoulders sprouting naked women, lost girlfriends' names scarring flesh like bullets.
One man took a swing. His scrawny tat-covered arm shot through the night like a wingless lawn dart. The other cat took it in the jaw, then lurched forward, an attack more akin to a fat man at a buffet than a street brawl. More broken lawn darts flew through the twilight, the shadows cast by sodium vapor streetlights distorted and mean.
College girls, all dressed up and pretending to be urban sophisticates, watched and crowed and whispered and gasped, unaware that, should the cops arrive, they could be detained as witnesses, could be carded for underage drinking.
In the Hamptons, or out on the Cape, or on the banks of Lakes Michigan and Erie, in gated communities and other picture-perfect suburban brainfucks, Daddy's little princesses aren't exposed to this sort of skulduggery – they treat the fight as something for their entertainment, some freakshow put on by Townies for their amusement alone.
Both fighters were skinny and drunk. Fortunately, nobody expected a title fight. With all the grace and delicacy of an exploding car bomb, the whole physical outburst was reduced to smoldering screams from opposite ends of an alley in under a minute.
And the college girls blinked behind their out-of-place cocktail dresses and expensive high heels and designer handbags. There was, good Lord, blood coming from gaping head wounds and busted lips! The wifebeaters and tee-shirts were streaked with crimson as their owners pulled their clothing back on afterwards.
Must be nice to be shocked at the sight of two rednecks fighting over a trailer park Lolita.
* * * *
They tell me he overdosed, years ago. Heavy drug use turned a once gifted local child, a certifiable genius, into a cocaine-retarded blight upon the face of Oxford Fucking Ohio.
Instead of curing diseases or writing manifestos or building the damned world a better fucking mousetrap, he now wanders the streets as a zombified simpleton. He picks up work wherever he can find it, manual labor his destiny until death brings sweet liberation.
They tell me he's tried to kill himself, too, but the good people of Oxford Fucking Ohio just keep saving him.
I watch from a park bench as he lumbers by, quietly, his face obscured by an oversize hoodie.
And the Campus Crusaders and Soccer Moms, the men in white khakis and leather penny loafers, all seem to ignore him, an unfortunate blight on a college town Robert Frost once called one of the most beautiful college towns in the world.
The preppy students ignore him, as do the campus radicals who're busy preparing their latest bullshit protest. The campus liberals are all fired up about poverty, about wars on terror and crimes against the working class; the campus conservatives are demanding concealed weapons and curriculum oversight.
But everybody just forgets about the local kid in the hoodie, as soon as he moves out of sight. Just like the liberals ignore the poverty in this community, just like the conservatives blame locals for their need to carry weapons, he's just Static in the way of The Message, another local to call irrelevant for the sake of that grad school application.
He moves like a phantom, a tragic ghost that everybody secretly wishes would disappear, a brain-damaged Druid who scares the college kids and makes the alumni uneasy and who doesn't fit into an imaginary world based on a quotation by a dead New England poet.
In all honesty, I can see why the good people of Oxford Fucking Ohio want to keep him around, bum him cigarettes and give him the occasional free beer or sandwich.
The illusion of a perfect little college town, where the red-brick nostalgia of university recruitment often drowns out the harshness of reality, needs to be kept in check by somebody.
Robert Frost loved small town life too much to be just another bullshit quotation in a rich university's handouts.
Does anybody really think that ol' Yankee wordsmith, if he were still alive today, would've given a flying ratfuck about a college town where students are taught to ignore the people in front of their very eyes?
* * * *
She punches buttons on the cash register as she tells me about her one day off this week, about how she plans to spend the day with her son, to go catch a movie in nearby Hamilton.
As the cashier talks, I can feel the pair of sorority girls behind me, staring daggers through the back of my Stetson. It was my fault, obviously, for asking the middle-aged woman how life was treating her and her son, my fault for supposedly slowing down their quest to purchase a shopping cart full of Michelob Ultra – that lime-flavored shit that seems to be perpetually on sale and ripe for the undergrad consumer's picking.
The cashier and I are chatting, sure, but she's moving as fast as she can, running items over the scanner as she talks. And I'm a-swiping my debit card through the reader, answering omnipotent survey questions and navigating past the Cash Back? prompts and requests for a PIN number as efficiently as possible.
The stares seem to intensify when I respond to the cashier's plans, when I wish her well and express my hope that her son enjoys the day with ol' Mom. I can hear the sighs behind me, feel the daggers roll inside their eyesocket scabbards.
Never mind that the cashier is still ringing up my purchases, that my debit purchase is still processing across the untold millions of miles of Big Box retailer fiber-optic cable.
Simply being friendly is not something one does when other people are in a hurry to binge drink away a weekend. There are, after all, wealthy trustafarian boys to seduce, popped-collar poppycocks and pastel-colored preppy nincompoops to impress with tales of wild ski trips to exotic New Hampshire and Aspen, tales of daddy's time as member of some Ivy League crew team.
I listened, over my shoulder, as the two debutantes vented their frustrations over being forced to wait in line while their very important lives passed them by – mumbled and whispered and sighed, as if protecting their sheltered upbringing meant more to me than my bags full of smoked oysters, potato salad, and free-range eggs.
And to think, yes, there are single moms who work two jobs, who get only one full day off, once in a blue moon, who dare disrupt their precious routine with smalltalk about their children and kids' movies.
The audacity of some people.
Those women shouldn't have to wait in line, anyway.
After all, Daddy rowed a motherfucking boat all through college.
* * * *
I finish writing. Look up from the laptop, only to discover that Audrey Hepburn has left the building. I stand up, stretch, hit the head for a quick, caffeine-filled piss.
Wandering outside, I light cigarette and look off into space. Having stared at a laptop screen for hours, my eyes were having trouble adjusting to the dim light of early evening.
Two walk by on the sidewalk - more female undergrads. Undergrads, even in college towns, are easy to distinguish from full-time residents. Townie women stand out a bit more, carry themselves with more confidence and comfort, the streets of Oxford more of a childhood playground than some mythical Public Ivy holding tank.
One of the women exclaims that she wants to do some work in the coffee shop. The other states that she'll finish her cigarette, come in for a few minutes to warm up, and then head towards the bars.
Soon, I'm standing on a lonely sidewalk and staring off into space, in front of a crowded cafe, with a woman who looks like Sophie Marceau puffing away and staring, five feet away.
She didn't say a word. Just stood there, smoking, until I finished my cigarette. Maybe Sophie just wanted some company. Or maybe it was the cowboy hat. A lot of undergrads see the hat and think that, somehow, that automatically makes me one of those no-good, unsophisticated Townies. In a way, they're right - I grew up in a tiny college town, like Oxford Fucking Ohio, where undergrads thought we were all ig'nant hicks.
Oxford really is full of interesting stories. And sometimes, it's good to be an ig'nant hick storyteller.
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