Reviving the Town’s Soul

I’ve played with the town of Struggles, Arkansas, using it in a few vignettes I’ve posted on this blog and in a few stories I’ve drafted. When I conceived of the town, I had a specific picture of the place in mind. I fabricated the town and its inhabitants, the bars and the restaurants and the court-house and police station. I manufactured the industries that had served as its life blood.

The town’s social scene was clear to me. I understood the relationships between wealthy land developers and investors and between business owners and their employees. I knew the economic and civil fabric of the town better than the mayor and the directors, better than the police chief and the head of the health department. I was so knowledgeable because, I created the place in my head.  I gave life to that place and its businesses.

But then, as I watched a century pass, the town changed. The products its manufacturers produced and the services its businesses offered became anachronisms. In a society changing at the speed of thought, their factories and headquarters buildings crumpled into useless hulks and breathed their last breaths. Large-scale lay offs transformed a once-successful town, its skeletal remains barely able to stand. Buildings stood empty and decaying. The mood of the dwindling population darkened. Gloom wove its way into the fabric of every conversation. A sense of the inevitable complete demise of the town was everywhere. A rancid, acidic slurry of hatred and blame for the town’s fate flowed through the streets.

But I had other plans for Struggles. I crafted in my head the town’s last bar, the Fourth Estate Tavern, and its owner and barkeeper, a mysterious character in his mid-sixties named (until I decide to change it) Calypso Kneeblood. Though Kneeblood was just barely scraping by, he frequently spent money he didn’t have to help patrons who frequented his place. Calypso Kneeblood looked like and spoke like a harsh, hard, gnarled old man, but his actions told another story. And the other story was unfolding when I killed Struggles, Arkansas. I closed the Fourth Estate Tavern without even the courtesy to tell Kneeblood nor to say why. In my mind, I sent the characters who frequented the place to the homeless shelter that, I knew, would close soon.

Like everything else in Struggles, the homeless shelter would lose its source of funding and the emotional energy to keep it afloat. Without the stamina to keep the story going, the town would shrivel and die. Struggle, Arkansas would be the victim of progress and apathy, a victim of egotism gone awry and lust for money gone utterly insane.

Ultimately, though, Struggles, Arkansas could have survived, except for the murderer who lived in the town’s soul and allowed his fingers to clasp Struggles’ neck in a choking death grip.

If it’s not clear, the stories in my head about Struggles and the afflictions the town faced were moving a story line forward, but I permitted myself to allow the powers that were pushing Struggles over the edge to win. I stopped writing about it. I starved the town of the energy I had given it.

Fortunately for Struggles (and, perhaps, for me), I think I’m about to resurrect my story, dust it off, and give new energy to the people inside the Fourth Estate Tavern. Calypso Kneeblood and his derelict patrons may yet return to life and may give Struggles, Arkansas another opportunity to come off life support. I know the characters and I know their stories. I don’t know just what’s going to happen, but I think there’s some new energy on the horizon. So, I’ll gather up all the bits and pieces I’ve written about Struggles, stitch them together as appropriate (and discard the detritus), and continue with its efforts to survive.

Onward and upward, as they say. But, this morning, I have to finish making the sausage and cheese balls to take to the UU church. A friend will speak this morning about Black History Month and her life growing up in the segregated south. My wife and I agreed to make the pre-program goodies; she is providing the sweet stuff, I am providing the savory.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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