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Indianaville, a tale of the Hoosier swamplands from Randy Wireman

By Randy Wireman
Mint and sweat discolored his t-shirt. He spoke in fractured sentences, somehow conciliatory, into his cell. The mint made sense as there were miles of the stuff just northwest of the broiler. I remember mint always hanging in the air near harvest, and this young man must have been wallowing in that oil all morning, all afternoon. This town had always been a hub for potatoes, not necessarily mint. I’d grown up near here in the Eighties and this broiler had changed names a half dozen times. Steamy day.
The young man slipped his cell into his pocket as he waited in line. He scanned the room as he tucked in his shirt and then wiped his black hair back. He stretched, taking little notice of me as I stood behind him, much less what I would think of his green-splotched elbows and forearms below the carefully rolled denim shirtsleeves.  Glanced toward a man sitting at a table pushed into wall near the bathroom and who caught his eye pretty much deliberately, gave a single nod. His friend was similar in age and stature. His massive arms were reddened by long stress marks as if a rope had been tied around them, though Mint & Sweat’s were deeply tanned and glossy.

Mint & Sweat ordered two BBQs with two large fries, and two large root beers, making sure the round, gray-haired woman behind the counter heard ‘large’ root beers correctly. The broiler was still as small as it ever had been, and the only tables not being used were littered with the wrappers and cups of the previous customers, customers who must have been quick to eat, to leave, and to never return. Even I was to never come back, or so I thought. This poor town has gotten even poorer. What brought me here had been a stop for gas, tenderloin, and a large reconstituted iced tea before I moved on to Knox, for a funeral. My turn for the welcome to Jan’s’s and the tired grin. Damn, out of tenderloin, no sorry.
Indianaville just seemed to have stumbled into existence along Highway 421, where wild roses, swamp grass, and red-shouldered black birds patrolled a staggered margin between agriculture and civilization. Money was always raised on the one side and poured into the other; until, that is, when the green was tapped to other places, to other hands. Set back from the streets, many of the turned-milk clapboard houses were as dreary as they were back when I lived here: cavernous porches ornamented with plastic red carnations or burnt ferns bending over their concrete pots; front yard sand pits peppered with crabgrass and dandelion…seas of sand, crabgrass, and dandelion. Every other house or so had signs propped against tobacco-stained windows warning of dogs or Honeywell Security. Even a couple of Victorians facing the road had become permanent markets for antiques and car parts, displayed on plywood held up by shop horses and rusty metal tables with bent legs. But there was no one in attendance; no one minding the shop in this heat, save a black and white cat that lazily crossed the road as I nearly put the steering wheel into my lungs. The cat was as old and stiff as the 50's street lamps along Main, lit prematurely in the early evening sun. Ghosts stuck in molasses, this town.
I sat at a table in the back, swiped off the spilled salt with a napkin.  The next table over sat Mint & Sweat and his friend. I glanced over. They responded with a slight nod. Suspecting they wanted some privacy, I sat facing away from them as much as I could, grabbed some fries from the paper boat, dipped them in some ketchup smelted by the window radiation, and appreciated the salt and grease and vinegary emulsion on my tongue. Could swear I tasted tenderloin and catfish, too. Small towns always taste the same.
Nothing has changed. Same tables; same plywood bathroom door, and same off-white blinds, too, as when I was a teenager. I must have sat in this corner over a hundred times. Out the window I see the edge of Burke’s woods where my buddy and I caught anything that moved in the drain creeks. It’s all fenced in now. A rich farmer probably bought it. There was Burke’s farm at the edge of their woods, and then Ogden’s farm where my buddy ended up renting a trailer, and then Mom and Dad’s farm, way out near the county line. Indianaville was our closest town; roadside homes, two gas stations, and one broiler where hell raisers like my buddy and me roamed in outdated Monte Carlos and salmon-colored, convertible Mercs, and a fairly new metallic blue Cutlass we stole from his sister once and steered it right into a drag race on 3rd Street.
“Naw. It’s not like that, kid. Crazy. Listen to yourself.”
That was Mint & Sweat, in his conciliatory voice. Wondered what they do in this town to pass the time. It was a weekend playground for us before we got our cars. I was happy here for a few summers until we discovered that other worlds were only a gas tank away. 421 broke open, hemorrhaged, and nothing could stop the bleed from Main Street to the steel mills up in Gary or to places south. I guess we just got up and went.
“Less than an hour’s difference, Perry. Maybe forty?” Mint & Sweat’s friend had a much higher pitch than what his brawn suggested. “We could stay at Regina’s place here in town.”
“Naw. Jenny’s pretty smart.” I heard one of them sip their Pepsi, squeal the straw up and then down. “She’s probably heading to Bloomington.”
Didn’t surprise me none, Jenny leaving Indianaville. Nothing changes here. We were no different. Guess we left everything to the elderly and to the migrant workers to sort out.
Only a few true farmers around here anymore. Poor farmers sold their land to rich farmers and then the rich farmers sold their precious muck to conglomerates. We were poor farmers. Dad sold out to Leon Bailey one acre at a time, more or less. We always had more sand dunes than muck, anyway. Progress, I suppose.
            “Yeah. Business school.”
            I knew the guys were looking around making sure I wasn't listening. Their pauses were too perfectly placed. Their words were heavier than they wanted it to sound. I scooted my chair farther into the table, focused on my fries, and realized a few minutes had passed when neither guy had said anything. The heartbreaking stillness of this town. Really. A car or truck couldn't break it for very long. And the winters…man. Dead. For a teenager, it was frustrating….
“Oberlander’s sister lives in Knox.”
Too cold to hunt. Depressing, really. Must have burned a million gallons driving from one friend’s house to another.
“Debbie’s cool about things. Her cousin—”
“Fucking listen to yourself. Why would you work here and live there? Think about it.”
Stillness. Then a movement – a rustling ¬¬that broke Indianaville, one that struck a nerve. I felt the deep loathing of reality, a wakening from a satisfying fantasy. I hated how the metal chairs squeaked, how the tables wobbled on the cracked and gouged linoleum, banged against the dry, warped window sills.
I stared at the greasy fingerprints on the blue curtains, felt a sudden loneliness, and in a forever kind of way.
“Just…sit your ass down.”
And I was familiar with that kind of forever. I know what happens when people leave: they leave others behind.
I smelled underarm deodorant as Mint & Sweat’s friend walked past me towards the door where he slammed his food into the waste basket. His friend yanked on the door, hesitated, held it open for a young, blonde girl and an older woman with matching hair. He glanced back at Mint & Sweat as the women entered.  A slight shake of the head?  His friend walked out, let the door creak shut behind him.
The girl saw Mint & Sweat in the corner, waved, and then got in line to order their usual. Not sure what Mint & Sweat did. He might have nodded. Didn’t matter. There could be no love there, or at least not as much as with the one who walked out. It was obvious. I felt the change in sympathy, in tenderness, in honesty. Mint & Sweat felt it, too. I felt his sense of letting something go, of leaving something behind, leaving something unfinished. A kind of death. He wanted to run out, wanted to make things right. He stayed, in his corner, long enough to hate this moment, this place, the stench of fried food, the ugly old linoleum, the off-color blinds, the stillness….
I finished all I could of the hamburger, a poor second when one longed for tenderloin, longed to get back onto 421. No reason to stay any longer, anyway. Jan’s Broiler held a gripping guilt. Mint & Sweat was staring out the window and handsome, massive, tanned at forearm and neck, and on a hair trigger moment to run out the door and find his buddy, leave this altogether. This town was like fingernail impressions in a waxed paper cup, conjuring the strength to escape a lifelong repression, to expose the lie. Or seek safety in it? Wax shavings everywhere.
The lie?  Did Mint & Sweat have a sudden hatred of his Baptist lessons, the lessons that he rarely had questioned? When a man really wants something, he goes and gets it. What of their intimacy? Could he hate his girlfriend, too, though by no fault of her own? Hated her mother, those disapproving eyes that could guilt the one-winged Satan. The two were beautifully dressed in matching summer colors, clueless to the complexity that layered a man’s heart. Mint & Sweat nodded to his girl, and then he stared into the table at ambiguous initials etched together inside a heart. Might he have carved his buddy’s name in the faux marble, between “Class of ’77” and “Darlene Loves T.A.L?”  But someone in this small town would have recognized his hand, seen him do it.
He should. He should do it, even if Jenny Cole saw him do it. He wrote it out with his green-stained finger, wrote it big using the condensation pooled around his cup. He dared not wipe it away, hoping that someone, anyone, would see it, yes, finally see it! He’d knock down the first one who said anything derogatory, anyone who made a face or dishonored it in any way. He’d leave it there, too. His girl called out his name. He stared into the initials, smelled her perfume. His girl bent down, shook his arm.
“Mamma has a table by the door. Are you all right?”
He dropped a napkin over the wetness, watched his buddy’s initials soak through the paper and fade into themselves like gray clouds. She watched him do it. She said nothing and must have thought he was losing it. She’d always be left wondering, perhaps knowing. Jenny’s a smart girl.

Suppose I knew what he was going to do next. Mint & Sweat was going to leave Indianaville. He’d go to the steel mills up north for a couple of years, and then he’d go follow his girl to Bloomington, not be passing by here for another ten years, on his way to Knox for a funeral. He’d pass Jan’s Broiler three blocks north of Main Street, drive by Burke’s woods and past Ogden’s little farm where he’d keep his engine running a field away and count how many trailers still looked lived in. And then he’d get back on 421 and drive on through the acres of mint to the northwest. The fields near Knox would crest and fall in the restlessness broil of summer as the mint, ever-present, would never leave the tongue tasting anything else.

BIO:  Randall Wireman received a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Purdue University. By day, Randy is the Technical Advisor for a pharmaceutical industry service provider who spends his lunch periods editing the chapters and stories that Fiction Writer Randy has created the previous night. While the two Randys have had some sharp differences, both have successfully collaborated in writing gay technical protocols inspiring love and fiction romance involving assays and high throughput screening. Wait. Reverse that.