Fiction · 07/03/2013

Town Trip

We — those of us at the academy with money to burn — wanted to go to town. Of course, we always wanted to go to town, would have always agreed to go, whether we had money or not, because somebody with money would surely take pity on us and buy us something, but moreover because we simply wanted to get away, wanted to be free, wanted to escape the confines of our campus and enter the realm of commerce, a place whose half-remembered drudgeries we had, in our minds, exalted. So we visited the clipboard in the Ad Building with the sign-up sheet, and scrawled our names in the spaces provided.

Most of all, we wanted a reason not to visit our cafeteria, a place that had the power — even when we were starving — to arouse nausea. We wanted relief from lentil loaf and mixed vegetables, from the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we made when we couldn’t stomach the main courses, each of which was prepared for us by our peers, who were directed by our school’s cook, whose name — no kidding — was Mrs. Cook, a round-cheeked woman who had taken over the role of head chef from a couple whose last name — no kidding — had been Kitchen, as if these people were destined by their very names to enter the occupation of food preparation, though this fact failed, sadly, to enable them to devise appealing meals. And so, we lived off of a daily regimen of legumes, eggs, cheese, wheat, and soy. Brittle approximations of bacon turned to dust on our tongues. We had choked down condiment-drenched soy-wieners, scrambled eggs that arrived in torso-sized plastic bladders, hot fruit cocktail on toast, re-hydrated potatoes, and flabby patties of crushed nut and wheat germ, deep fried in oil.

We were often hungry. We wanted food. We wanted real food — by which we meant not-quite food. We wanted candy and chips and snack cakes. We wanted pizza and fries. We wanted to lose ourselves in consumption, to experience the salty obliterations offered by restaurants whose signs had become familiar beacons, ciphers with the power to summon entire menu-boards of salted and sugared concoctions. We longed to bask in under their fluorescent lights, to unwrap greasy sandwiches, to dip fried potatoes into the sludge of machine-churned shakes. We had metabolism on our side. We could eat and not grow weary.

Specifically, we — that is, a good many of us — wanted meat. Our school — and our denomination — promoted a vegetarian diet, endorsed the eating of whole grains, fruits, and nuts. A century before, our prophetess had been granted visions, had visited heaven, had been shown that the human body was never meant to eat flesh foods, and that eating meat would keep us from being holy and communing with angels, and that, furthermore, it would incite animal passions. And animal passions were — as we all knew — the last thing we should ever want to incite.

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Sometimes the bus wouldn’t start. The diminutive Minder — our Vice Principal, a smirking man who wore a mustache and whose affability appeared to be the kind of costume that seemed more like a half-baked disguise — turned the key, stomped on the gas. Nada. We volunteered to push. The bus’ bumper blackened our palms. The engine turned over. Muffler exhaust heated our jeans. The bus rolled slowly forward. We piled inside.

We sang on the way. We played mook-chi-pa — a complicated version of rock, paper, scissors, taught to us by Korean girls. We passed trees and yards and houses. In the distance: mountains we would never know. Trailers. Fish-shaped mailboxes. Trucks. We breathed on windows, drew with our fingers the initials of our beloved. We bounced on the seats. We were giddy. We were townbound!

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In the supercenter’s parking lot, Minder reminded us: we had one hour.

We kept the Sabbath from Friday night to Saturday night, and would need to return to the school before the great red disc of the sun slid behind the backdrop of our mountains, like a coin sliding into the slot of a colossal machine. After the last sliver of sun slinked out of view, we would rise from plastic cafeteria seats and, like the figures of a mechanical diorama obeying the course of action dictated for them by the Man who’d assembled their bodies, spring to life: we would dispose of our Styrofoam platters and plastic utensils (the use of disposable dinnerware minimized the work performed by the cafeteria staff during Sabbath hours) and return to our respective dorms, where we’d shed our clothes, wrap ourselves in damp, soured towels that had spent the day molding into the shape of the bedposts upon which they’ve been hung, gather armloads of toiletries — soap dishes, shampoo bottles slippery with scum, rusted razors, mildewy washcloths — and trot down bleach-stained carpets toward the nearest bathroom, to lather our bodies with hunks of melting soap, scrubbing away the day’s grime beneath an industrial-strength spray as fine and sharp as needles. Once showered, we’d don semi-casual business attire — dresses for the girls; sweaters and cardigans and mock turtlenecks for the boys — and walk to the chapel, for Friday night vespers, a low-key worship service featuring dim lights, skits, emotional testimonies, altar calls, and melodic songs in minor keys.

Now, Minder tugged on a lever, folding open the doors. We streamed out. We carried dollar amounts in our heads. We crossed still-warm asphalt. Local dudes in jacked up trucks bleated their horns, exhaust pipes vomited smoke. In Taco Bell, we dared each other to hot sauce eating contests, sucked down multiple suicides we made by mixing every beverage at the soda fountain. At an all-you-can-eat buffet, we piled warm platters with T-bones and chicken wings, sucked colas from opaque tumblers, returned for seconds and thirds, retrieved dessert from an ice cream machine. We gorged on hamburger pizza. We ordered buckets of chicken, tore greasy flesh and de-meated bones like seasoned barbarians.

We weren’t supposed to have radios, CD or cassette players, couldn’t be trusted with electronics; we might employ them to listen to rock music, which, with its demon-summoning drums and Satan-worshipping musicians, would surely cast dark spells upon us. So we hid our devices in slits in our mattresses, in the pockets of blazers hanging in our closets, inside books whose middles we’d disemboweled. And now, in the electronics section of Wal-Mart, we lifted from bins the cardboard sleeves of compact discs, studied the garish covers that brazenly advertised their musician’s depravities. We purchased magazines that featured photo spreads with our favorite bands: long-haired, clad in tight leather, draped in ripped t-shirts, cradling Jack Daniel’s bottles between their legs like prosthetic genitalia, smoking cigarettes, sneering. Drifters in flannel. We knew they were bad. We didn’t aspire to their lifestyles, had no aspirations to emulate them, to abandon the trajectories for which our parents had shelled out thousands. Nevertheless, we stood in awe of their rebellion, secretly praised their audacity, cheered their insolence. We might never have sucked on the filter of a lit cigarette or taken so much as a sip of alcohol, had never set fires or purposefully wrecked anything, much less a musical instrument worth more than our collective bank accounts, but we’d purchased cassettes and CDs, slid them open and unfolded the covers, smudging the sheen with our fingerprints. We’d whispered lyrics prayerfully. We’d studied the artwork, worried over lurid depictions — a slim woman with buxom breasts who appeared to have been ravished by a robot — and what it might mean that we were interested in looking. On home leaves, we had driven our parents’ cars much faster than we should, cranking our music so loud the speakers buzzed, and nearly given our mothers heart attacks because, though we’d remembered to eject the tapes, we’d left the volume all the way up.

We eyeballed locals, kids our age and younger, kids with camouflage hats and shirts, kids who hunted deer and wild turkey and raccoon in the woods, kids whose parents worked at convenience marts and carpet mills, parents whose lungs wheezed because of cigarette smoke and inhaled microfibers, and made fun of them.

And, maybe, we went a little crazy. Maybe we climbed into carts and rode them as our friends ran behind. Maybe we exited a dressing room wearing a football jersey that we hadn’t paid for, and wouldn’t. Maybe we kissed the fat girl who limped and maybe we made out with her because we felt sorry for her, because we knew she wouldn’t turn us down, because her mouth opened and it was a mouth and we could close our eyes and she kissed back and it was soft and we liked it. Maybe we burst open a blister pack of razors, slid one into our pocket, thinking we could get away with it. Maybe we found the aisle with the Reddi-Whip cans, popped off a top, sucked on the sweet plastic tip and, for approximately ten to fifteen seconds, completely obliterated our senses. Maybe we ripped a page from of the “Look Who’s HOT” issue of Rolling Stone. Maybe we slipped a Janet Jackson or Motley Crue or Skid Row tape into a cardigan pocket. Maybe we tried out the cheapo skateboards; maybe we ollied onto a metal ledge. Maybe, because we thought it would be funny, because we knew it would make someone else laugh, and because we often resorted to exerting dominance over those who were weaker than ourselves, and because, once upon a time, someone had done something similar to us, we tripped a freshman and sent him falling headlong into a Tampax display. Maybe we bought condoms, met our significant others in a bathroom or maybe we entered the woods behind the store. Maybe we served as lookout for someone who did. Maybe we figured ourselves to be out of the sight lines of the eyes of cameras living behind black bubbles in the ceilings. Maybe we were wrong.

The announcement reverberated throughout the store: all academy students please return to your bus. It was not unlike the voice of God, which none of us had actually heard, though we all believed, in due time, we might. We wished He would speak. We would’ve welcomed a blazing bush, its leaves aflame but not being consumed. We would’ve gladly kneeled before a whirlwind, a giant pillar of cloud. In choir, we sang that we could see Him in every flower that bloomed, in falling rain, in the snows upon the plain. Every week during church, we claimed to see his son, Jesus, in our classmates and teachers: in the tubby black kid who held the door open for us; or the skinny girl with long blonde hair and braces, who surrendered the last pudding cup; or Dean E., who forgave us for running in the halls after lights out.

We retuned to campus at dusk, clutching our sacks — our treasured provisions, the last glistening leftovers from our savage feasts — tightly against our chests. We had deliveries to make, burritos to sell or trade, cases of caffeinated cola to peddle on the black market. Our crotches burned. Our stomachs bloated. We smacked our lips, hooted with laughter. We made our presence be known. We had gone to town, and now, with loot, we had returned.

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Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam Cage 2009, Salt Publishing 2010), a collection of stories, and Inscriptions for Headstones (Outpost19), a collection of essays, each crafted as an epitaph and each unfolding in a single sentence. With David Shields, he is co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W.W. Norton, 2012). His work is forthcoming in Tampa Review,The Literary Review, and Best American Essays 2013, and has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New England Review, elimae, DIAGRAM, Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Normal School, Willow Springs, The Antioch Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Carolina Quarterly,Oxford American, and The Sun. He is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech, where he directs the undergraduate creative writing program.