The following essay appeared in The Kalahari Review on 17-01-2017
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Small-Town Syndrome:

A condition in which small towns suffer from a lack of offerings in a number of important lifestyle categories (i.e.; stuff to do, availability of the opposite sex, etc) and a general malaise of boredom and monotony.

 

There’s a turn-off on the highway which leads you in, down to a crossroads and a bridge which crosses the river. Upon crossing it, you’re greeted with instant hay-fever and a permanent roadblock. The officer, a woman with a mannish haircut, waves you over to the side of the road and asks you why you’re not wearing your veiligheidsgordel. You tell her you don’t know what the fuck a veiligheidsgordel is and she replies in the most broken of English – “Yes, I can see you don’t know what it are.”

She writes you a ticket for a thousand fat ones. You’re on your way.

 

There are a few things you learn whilst living in a small town.

Firstly, I pass six churches on my way to work – and incidentally, I pass about sixteen liquor stores on the same route. I’ve been hit with a bible hurled by a drunken woman for wearing an offensive t-shirt.

All there is to do in this town is drink, and when people aren’t getting fall-off-your-barstool fucking annihilated drunk, the only social life they have consists of standing around in random locations or sitting on sidewalks.

The local police don’t like this.

They call this a code 404 – which is “suspicious persons or loitering” and when you head out to the Free State, a code 404 simply means “black person.”

That’s the next thing you learn.

I’ve fallen under an alarming number of police radio codes in my lifetime. 101, 104, 501, 506, 203, a couple of 601’s, too many 602’s to still be sitting here as a free man. 304, the entire range of 7’s from 701 up til 706. 401, some 207’s after some irresponsible drinking… which all range drastically from potentially dangerous disturbance, passing out in public, assault, indecent exposure, various stages of undress, hit and runs, high speed pursuit, driving under the influence, possession of illegal substances, brandishing an unlicensed firearm, shoplifting, setting fire to municipal property or private property or garbage or a field and one time a dead cow, shooting a flare-gun into a public place, illegal purchase of a dolphin skull and of course 404 – because there’s nothing else to do in this town but loiter and wait for better days. It’s a hard town to have so many radio codes applicable to you. It’s a hard town to have big dreams in.

The next thing you learn is that some people have the same hairdresser their entire lives – barbershop quartets are still very much a thing – and the most entertaining parts of the local newspaper are the salaries being offered in the half-page 2-column job section.

Next – you need to drive 40km over to the next town in order to get your prescriptions or contraceptives.

You can’t steal books from the library because the librarian knows where you really live – and god knows I’ve tried.

You don’t get Mexican food over here, or Indian, or anything that hasn’t been beer-battered and deep-fried or braaied to oblivion, really. For a coastal town sushi costs you an arm and a leg and a bit of your soul, and catching your own fish without a permit could land you some serious jail-time, with the crotch spiders and people who are hell-bent on breaking a chair-leg off in your asshole.

In addition to standing around 404’ing the shit out of the local corner cafe, sometimes it seems like the only thing to do is a lot of drugs, and each other. Some scandalous things go down in the dark streets.

Lastly, everybody talks about leaving the small town and not many people do. The spilled drinks turn the floors to flypaper. In the taverns at night, all the poems are about the men who have run. When you finally break free – the last thing you learn is that it might have been a pretty great place to grow old in, after all. As if, in their own way, small towns push you away just to see if you’ll stay.

Distance means riptide – it means you often return crazier than when you left.

Alas, I’m rambling almost uncontrollably now.

 

I know a good man who told me that if he were to write a book, he would call it “Things I Lost While Living.”

I moved to a small coastal town from a big city with pockets full of money and a can-do attitude. Within a month I was broke and climbing the walls in frustration, gnawing on floorboards and at times I thought about wading out into the middle of the river and waiting for a speedboat to roar over my goddamn head and finish the job.

There’s nothing worse than failing, I said. There’s nothing worse than crawling back to the city, with all the bastards lining up to say “I told you so.”

If I were to write a book, he answered, I’d call it Things I Lost While Living, because that’s just how life goes. Some days you’re on the sinking Titanic, other days you’re in the lifeboat – and some days you’re that asshole who hits the propeller on the way down. When you’re going under, and sinking fast, sometimes you need to lose everything in order to return to the surface. There is no such thing as failure until you go lay down, and give up.

To quote Michael Douglas at his coked-up best from The Ghost and the Darkness – “We have an expression in prize fighting. ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit.’ Well, my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.”

Before I moved out here, I remember taking one last drive through the city roads I’d always called my home.

Memory can be a strange thing; it can haunt certain places, like a stain that nobody else can see but you. All those memories, all those streets. I came to realize as I wound my way through them, that these places really weren’t the same places they used to be. They had all deteriorated through time or neglect or drug-dealer occupation. These places weren’t home anymore; they’d turned dirty and ugly on me like that final shot of Tequila you knew you shouldn’t have taken.

All of those memories are still there, lingering in the air like wailing ghosts, and they will be there for a long time after the bastards have completely destroyed and raped the city. When everything is gone or covered in filth, the memories will still be there, but I sure won’t… And that’s why I left.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Aboard a sinking boat of a small town now, bailing water as fast as our arms allow, but at least we still have the shore in sight. There’s no building out here tall enough to throw yourself off of. There’s no place to go where you shouldn’t. This place is backwards, and this place doesn’t like new ideas or people who wear too many dark colours, but maybe that’s part of the appeal. At least the streets are clean and you can get away with being drunk and forgetting to shut your car doors, at least once or twice. If you listen you can hear the river at night, and I haven’t heard a gunshot, not even once.

I’m reminded that home isn’t a place, but a feeling. Home is something you may never flee from – your feet may leave but your heart will not. You may go out searching for all your missing pieces and find them there, waiting for you, when you return one cold night down to the crossroads and the bridge which crosses the river.

The shore is in sight. For now.

We keep on bailing.

 

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