Our Town and the Next Town Over


First Person

The author as a child, dressed as Oscar the Grouch.

Every year it floods on three sides of our town. I do not know how any town could have floods on three sides, but there it is. My mom says it is because the very rich people who live on the lake to the south of us keep the water levels too high so they can run their speedboats year-round, and then every spring, the rains come and we flood, and no one cares because we are all poor. It floods to the south along the river with the park with all the pavilions and the baseball diamonds and the tennis courts and the Frisbee golf course, and the small municipal (in-ground!) pool. And it floods on the southeast, behind the high school, and the motels near the highway. The Townsman Inn and Restaurant and Lounge has been renovated twenty times in half as many years, due to floods, most recently to feature taxidermy animals, on a shelf above all the booths, that stare at you in a menacing way over your coffee. And the one little tiny movie theater in town just seems to have water standing in the first three rows forever and always, and yet it remains open and we go see movies there, we just don’t sit in the first three rows. It floods to the northeast of town, too, all the way up practically to my Uncle Fuzz’s place, where he sleeps in the daytime while my aunt Margie sups on Sweet’N Low. There is the rust-red creek creeping up the concrete steps of my Uncle Fuzz’s house, while he is sleeping by day, because he is on graveyard shift his whole adult life at the tire factory, until he retires early with asbestos poisoning (from the tire factory).

And I say the rust-red creek, for indeed it is rust- and blood-red, this waterway that cuts through the center of town, because the groundwater has flushed its way through the lead and zinc mines to the northeast of town in Picher, the next town over, the ghost town and home of the giant chat piles. What is chat? It is gravel and shale that gets dredged out of the mines. The mines have been shut down for years, but all the chat they dredged out is piled up around Picher in giant mounds so that it looks like mountains on the moon, or foothills on the moon, this pale dusty gray range of hills that you can see on the horizon for miles. People run their dune buggies up and down the chat piles, and when I am little my dad goes there to sight his rifles and takes me, and in high school kids go there to hang out and get wasted, and everyone is always waiting to fall in a sinkhole, because what Picher is most famous for is sinkholes. The whole town is just perched on a honeycomb of mine shafts, and sometimes a hole just opens up in the middle of town and whatever is there—a truck, a sandbox, a double-wide—whatever it is sitting there just sinks into the earth instantly. When I am in high school and we go to the chat piles to get wasted, anytime someone wanders off to pee, we count in our heads, because if they don’t come back in forty-five seconds, we think they have fallen in a sinkhole.

Of course the mines are all closed up by the time I come along, and all the miners are gone mostly because they have died of miner’s TB, or have shot themselves when they realized they were dying of miner’s TB, like my grandfather did while my father was on the back porch playing in the dirt. (He shot himself in the chest, the source of the trouble!) And now everyone in town works at the tire factory, but even that doesn’t last long because it folds, and closes up its gates, but not before months and months of everyone seeing columns of thick black smoke pouring out of its smoke stacks, while they burn off the remaining tires.

And yes, this is all toxic, the lead and the zinc and iron oxide in the water and in the chat and in the soil, and the enormous tire factory that has just been fenced off and left to rust and decay in the middle of town, and the crop-dusting of the milo fields and the tanks for the chemicals for the crop-dusting just lying around loose, and the floodwaters coursing through all these things: this makes the whole place a toxic wasteland. We can’t play in any of the rivers or creeks, and we really should not drink the water even from the tap, and on days when the black smoke is in the air we shouldn’t even breathe if we are outside. (It’s no wonder I spend so much time in front of the television.) And everyone from Picher for sure has lead poisoning, and it is a running joke about them all being a little bit brain-addled because of all the lead, and if my dad encounters someone in a shop or a restaurant or at the DMV who seems less than swift he says, “I bet he’s from Picher.”

My dad is very lucky to not work in this toxic town but to have gotten a job at the trucking company one state over because it is a union job and the union is no joke and will shoot anyone that tries to fuck with its members. Well, shoot at. They shoot at the scabs, but they don’t shoot the scabs. They perch on an overpass and fire into or around the cabs of the trucks if the scabs cross a picket line. They know how to do it just right, because they are all pretty decent shots because of being veterans and/or having gone through army conscription, like my father. I can see why my dad is loyal to the old-timers who made it happen. But even that is not going to last because my dad is going to have a stroke, and then things change a lot.

My mother talks about a time when her uncles and aunts would go down to the railroad trestle bridge and collect freshwater mussels from the base of the iron trestle and they would eat them and my dad says: “Are you kidding me? Not even in the twenties!” But my mom swears it and shows me pictures of her aunts and uncles in antique bathing costumes wading around in the river below the trestle bridge. Their hands are full of something, but it is impossible to say what. Everyone looks beautiful and happy and overdressed in their luxurious black bathing costumes. What the hell happened?

Now we can’t even get to that bridge unless we ride bikes for ages and then stumble through a field of burned-off stubble that if you aren’t wearing good sneakers will pierce the sole of your shoes, and then we have to climb around on the decrepit railway and then stumble out on the condemned bridge, and the only thing I know that we ever use it for is for throwing off bottle rockets and watching them explode under the water, but that is a bit later, when I am older. (At the moment, I am only allowed sparklers, and only while chaperoned.)

This is not the sort of thing that would please the Lorax.


Joanna Howard is a writer and translator from Miami, Oklahoma. She is the author of the memoir Rerun Era, the novel Foreign Correspondent, the story collections On the Winding Stair and In the Colorless Round, and Field Glass, a collaborative novel written with Joanna Ruocco. She also cotranslated Walls by Marcel Cohen and Cows by Frederic Boyer. She teaches in the literature Ph.D. program at Denver University.

“Every Town Has Its Ups and Downs, Sometimes Ups Outnumber the Downs (But Not in Nottingham)” (here titled “Our Town and the Next Town Over”) is used by permission from Rerun Era (McSweeney’s, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Joanna Howard.