Small-Town Politics

Prompt this time comes from Yeah Write.

“She killed her son.” Write on this sentence, but don’t include any violence in your story.

As I wrote this, I began to realize that the setting was basically the small town I grew up in. For anyone from there that happens to read this, I promise there’s nothing specific to anyone in town. Except for a specific line from a conversation I remember my father having at Ruthies, which I’ve slightly falsified. If anyone recognizes it, kudos to you.

 

The cafe was loud, in the way only small-town cafes managed. Patrons called fond insults across the room to waves of laughter. An old farmer couple sat at the counter, trading tips about what to expect with this year’s frost with the bad winter they’d had last year. Another group a few chairs away discussed lawn-care requirements. One of the men was particularly adamant on mowing styles, “You’ve gotta mow in a different pattern once in a while, or the grass starts to grow in that direction and it doesn’t cut so clean.” His argument was quickly followed up by, “Mulching, though. If you mulch it, it don’t matter so much.”

Before the conversation could get heated, and some of the customers were already turning to see what the first man’s response was, the door opened and a family of four tromped in, a couple and their eldest two daughters.

“Look who it is! As I live and breathe, it’s little Hannah!” the waitress said. She stepped out from behind the counter to hug the older of the girls. “Hand enough of big city life?”

“I missed the food,” Hannah said, returning the hug and then following her family to the table nearest the counter.

The initial thread of the conversation was disrupted for a few minutes as the various townsfolk asked her how she was liking her first year of college (“It’s different, but I really like it so far.”), where her younger brother was (“You know Peter. Probably trying to figure out how to let the Cooper’s cows out Monday morning so he can skip school to round them up.”), what she had decided on majoring in (“Dunno yet. Nursing maybe, or the school has a really good livestock management program.”). Everything settled back into its usual rhythms before too long, interrupted only by the arrival of Peter in a muddied jacket and jeans.

Not long after that the farmer couple stood up, excusing themselves.

“The boys are coming home to help us with some work on the farm,” Wayne said, pulling out his wallet and throwing a few dollars down on the counter. The waitress smiled as she cleared the plates.

“When will your jam be ready, Betty?” the cook asked, emerging from the back. “The stuff you gave us last year was gone before winter was out.”

“Soon,” the elderly woman said. “Ryan’s bringing Angie with him. She’ll help with the jam this year.” Betty held out hands wracked with age. “There’s not as much strength in these old hands as there used to be.”

The couple had almost made it out the door when it opened and the entire cafe went silent. Even the younger children who had been laughing loud enough to drown out nearby conversations quieted without prompting from their parents. The cook disappeared back into the kitchen. The door closed behind Betty and Wayne with a loud thud into the silence, depositing a worn-looking woman in her mid-thirties in their wake.

The woman cast a quick look around the room, eyes flicking from table to table, coming to rest on a cracked tile near her feet. She skirted the edge of the counter like a feral barn cat, a careful distance between her and everyone else and came to an uneasy stop a few feet from the register.

“What can I get you?” the waitress asked. Her voice was kind but impersonal. It held none of the warmth with which she had greeted Hannah or jokingly refused to bring another customer ketchup.

“Just a coffee please. Black’s fine.” The woman’s voice was barely a whisper, but more than loud enough for the silence broken only by the ice cream machine running in the back.

The waitress picked up a Styrofoam cup from the stash near the register and moved toward the coffee. Conversation began to pick up again, spearheaded by the old logger Joe at the counter.

“Jim,” he said, voice just a little too loud, “what was it you said about that skidder of yours?”

Jim stuttered for a second before he caught the hint. “Yeah. Yeah, a brother of the wife’s got it from a neighbor of theirs who moved from the city. Got it practically for free, too, but it’s not pulling right.”

“What’re you doing tonight?”

Jim clapped his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Travis’s in the basketball tourney at the school today, but we should be home by six. Want to come by and take a look at it?”

And with that, the conversation started up again. A brave soul from the back piped up that he’d had a similar issue with their old tractor and it had been something with the steering–took him sixteen hundred bucks before someone figured it out. Damn waste of money, but an easy fix.

The waitress handed the coffee over. The woman gave the waitress a fragile smile and dropped a few dollars on the counter by the register. She hastened out, not pausing to either retrieve her change or even see how much she was owed.

“Who was that?” the loggers’ daughter asked after the door closed.

“Don’t know her name,” the waitress said, emerging from the back with a fresh coffee pot. “Want some more?” A handful of cups slid toward her. “She moved here a few weeks ago. Kathy at the gas station says she killed her son.”

That bit of information was imparted in a hushed voice, but not hushed enough to limit the conversation to just the two of them.

“If she killed her son, why’s she not in jail?” Madison, Hannah’s younger sister, asked.

“We don’t know she killed anyone,” Nancy said, appearing from behind the waitress. Conversation stopped long enough for everyone to greet the cafe’s owner. “She showed up near the start of the month, lookin’ for some work. She’s nice enough.”

“Nice, maybe,” the cook said, handing Nancy her usual large glass of Dr. Pepper. “But everyone says she killed the boy.”

“Why would anyone kill their own son?” Jennifer asked from one of the tables near the side. “Now a husband I get…”

There was a chorus of good-natured laughter and her husband made a helpless sort of “well she’s right” gesture to more laughter.

“Better watch out, Rich,” the waitress warned, making the rounds to their table with the coffee pot. “All I know is what Kathy told me. And you know how it is over there. They know everything before anyone else does. Sometimes before the person it’s about knows it.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Alyssa said from her booth on the side wall. “They congratulated me on getting engaged before Mike even asked me.”

“Kinda ruined the surprise,” Mike added. “But I got a card signed by all the employees before Alyssa even got back from the doctor the day she found out she was pregnant.”

“So where’d she end up getting a job?” Hannah asked, accepting a plate of pancakes from the cook. “Thank you.”

“Bank in town,” Nancy said, referring to the larger town down the road. “She’d worked at a bank in the city before she moved here, but I told her Donny wasn’t hiring, far as I knew.”

From there the conversation drifted away from the woman and her dead son, moving instead to the tribulations of driving those thirty-odd miles to work during the winter. The waitress promised to tell Tim, the town cop, it Jennifer’s fault if Rich disappeared in the next couple of years. Jim and Travis took their leave to the loud well-wishes of the entire cafe. It was an important tournament today, after all, and Jim reassured Joe that he was welcome any time after six or six-thirty. Hannah left before her family, citing an important paper she needed to get started so she could email the first draft to her professor before too late. Madison left with her, having made plans to meet some friends from school at the movie theater. They escaped out the door to a number of reminders to not “do anything I wouldn’t do!”

Talk moved on to the wolf packs in the area and how worried people were about their dogs and cattle. There’d been a sighting on the Jacobsen property and everyone knew they had more dogs than most of their neighbors had livestock. If they were coming this close to humans in this weather, there’d be hell to pay once it snowed and food got scarce. People’d have to watch their herds close.

The woman was essentially forgotten, until Jim started talking to one of his neighbors at the basketball tourney, telling him about the new woman in town who’d killed her son. Madison told one of her best friends after swearing her to silence. Katie went on to tell her brother and mother that night at dinner.

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