Flyover Towns/Meet Me in the Back Room After You Take That Shot of Brandy
The church parking lot is perhaps one of the most perplexing places on the planet. It is a sort of real-life purgatory, with the crossover from unholy to holy land happening over the course of a few hundred feet. Parishioners arrive in their shiny, middle class vehicles, trudging along with their infinite amounts of sins and vices, preparing to face the judgement of God on a lonesome and cold Sunday morning. Absent fathers and cheating mothers have a few moments of reflection before entering the house of the Lord. Rude, bitter, and disobedient children feel the weight of Glory as they are dragged across the pavement by the collar of their clearance rack JC Penney polo. Cigarettes are extinguished and last minute parlays are placed. In a little over an hour, the same transition will occur, except this time the mood will be flipped from hesitant and guilty to relieved and jubilant. IHOP waitresses will gladly seat the family of five in the corner booth. Gas station clerks. But what about the guy who nearly conceived a child in the backseat of his silver Honda Accord the previous night? Is he damned for eternity because he hastily decided that the back of the church parking lot was the best place to answer the call of a lonely single in his area who reached out to him via snapchat message? Is he not good enough to even receive a picture? Just a blue arrow with disappearing text? These are the great existential questions of our time, and I seek to answer them.
Statue. The man was a statue.
The man was like one of those metallic street performers, frozen in time on a busy street corner, with an upside down top hat placed in front of him begging for money because he had failed at succeeding in the capitalist world around him. Pathetic.
Except this man was a seasoned vet, and he was perched atop a town square park bench, casually observing the weekend warriors and consumerist muppets flock to the Saturday morning farmer’s market. I was one of those muppets, alongside my mother and uncle (neither of them are muppets; only I am allowed to make fun of my own kin, and I will refrain from doing so here, as I shall seek not to stray any further than God, as my leash nears its maximum elasticity).
Who knows how long he had been in that spot; it might as well have been for eternity. The watchful master of the town, the guardian angel shielding the citizens from smite; smiling and looking up from his up-to-date edition of the paper. He was likely born in the town, and he will likely die in the town. But I am not one to speculate on the death of a mere stranger; I will leave that to the dweebs that call themselves life insurance professionals, pushing pencils and eating tunafish salads as they re-calibrate their mortality tables. Pathetic.
Pop-up tents full of spreads of organic vegetables, artisan home goods, and family-run restaurant samples surrounded the roped-off block of the centrally-located town street. I was drawn to the coffee stand, as I was ready for my second cup on that lovely fall morning, and was seconds away from falling into a withdrawal-inspired rage if I didn’t medicate myself with another piping hot cup of caffeine. Pathetic.
One large cup of the dark roast. Yes, I would love to support your local business and purchase a bag of whole beans, because the idea of perceiving myself to be a champion of the people is a grand concept in my mind, and in the eyes of my fellow suburbanites. I can taste the sweet, savory salt of the earth in the first steamy sip of my beverage, and with that one sip, I am content for life. Nearby, a washed up, raggedly musician is mic testing before his unofficial official gig at the farmer’s market. He doesn’t even have to play a single note; I already know what is on his agenda - I might as well pull up the “All-Out 70s” playlist on Spotify and broadcast it on my shitty bluetooth speaker. In front of him, a splayed-open guitar case sits, suggesting that affluent consumers drop a coin or two in there to support his endeavors because he otherwise failed at succeeding in the capitalist world around him. Pathetic.
The idea of a flyover town hit me one glorious Sunday afternoon as I was speeding home on the interstate after visiting my parents for the weekend. Exhausted and inebriated (by food, I’ll save the drunk driving story for another day) to the point of dozing off, I found my right foot had turned into a cinderblock, a victim of the mesmerizing glare of Medusa, and soon enough saw the dreaded flashing red and blue lights in my rear view mirror. Good evening sir, do you know how fast you were going? Of course I know how fast I was going. I had hit 100 just a few miles back, but I was lucky enough to have slowed down to 91 in a 70, which is what your radar clocked me at when you decided to pull me over. 4 more mph and my license was suspended because traffic laws are obsolete and designed to imprison those who choose to live life on the reckless side. You can either pay your ticket online, or show up to your court date to dispute it. Slow down, and have a good night sir.
I digress. At some point in between receiving a slap on the wrist from law enforcement and arriving at my final destination, I had come to the stark realization that I was asleep at the wheel, both physiologically, and as it related to my surroundings. The interstate highway I was traveling on was one I was so familiar with at that point that I no longer needed to stay in tune with my environment. The meandering highway with predictable exits and perfectly tapered pavement had shut me off from the rest of the world; the path from point A to point B was never more clear in between the boundaries of those lanes. So as I made my way to point B, I reflected on the time when I had made the same exact journey, but with a starkly different path - a path that opened my eyes to a lost world of forgotten paradise.
Well, I shouldn’t say lost - no doubt that you and I both know what flyover towns are; the word “flyover” is interchangeable with the word “small”. But small down doesn’t have the same ring or connotation as “flyover”, so for the sake of stylization, we will run with this idea that flyover towns are no different than flyover states or flyover country - lost ruins within the boundaries of our own jurisdictions that most people gloss over when traveling. On this particular journey, I had decided to skip the interstate and instead take an old state route that ran from Cincinnati to Cleveland - one that had more turns, more stops, and lower speed limits. There was no rational reason to choose to do this other than a strange combination of self-atonement and a lust for a mild adventure; I was at rock bottom in my life, and was on my way to retrieve an old cell phone that was stowed away in a dresser in my childhood bedroom, because I had recently smashed my current cell phone in a fit of poverty-induced ire. Pathetic. Anyway, at this crossroads in my life, morale was low, senses were heightened, and what little stack of chips was remaining had been pushed into the center of the pot, alongside my face-up King-Ten offsuit; I was all-in.
After cruising through the suburbs on the outskirts of Columbus, I finally reached what I had been looking for - open air, rolling country hills, and fertile farmland. What most people know Ohio for, but don’t care to click the zoom button on the microscope. I didn’t even think about running the car A/C or blasting music on the aux (not that I had a choice), as this journey was to restore my appreciation for both my roots, as well as the good folks who have been missing from the rest of the world since birth, except there are no ads in the paper for them. The great state of Ohio is flatter than a CrossFit chick’s ass, but on that old state route, the rolling hills stand out, and you can feel the lay of the land underneath your tires, something that you would never get on the cookie-cutter interstate.
And of course, nestled cozily in between those rolling hills are the flyover towns themselves, often marked with just a single sign that announces the name of the village and its population. They range in size and scope; some are proper suburbs, and others don’t even have a stoplight or convenience store. Some of them boast town halls and city centers, others only have rotting, Victorian-style houses to display to the world. But one thing that all flyover towns have in common is a centrally-located place of worship - some might refer to this part of the land as “God’s country”, and to that I would agree. In fact, I would speculate that the only thing holding these tiny communities together are that single structure with a wooden cross nailed to the front. There are no commerce centers, attractions, or strip malls; the bond runs deeper - many of the towns have been around since the 1800s (yes, I know, there are towns in Europe that have been around longer, shut the fuck up, we won the War).
Part of me wants to pull the car over, hop out, and explore. But the truth is that there is nothing to explore, and even worse, I am leery of what I might stumble upon in these derelict strongholds void of any signs of life. Right wing commenters and new-age grifters often point fingers at urban mayors, citing rising crime rates and drug issues as signs of collapsing civilization. I would tell them to turn the pointed finger at themselves, and look at the state of their unions, and ask them if the Eden of the countryside is really an Eden, or just an idealized allusion of what life is supposed to mean to them. Crack in the cities, heroin and meth in the rural areas. What’s the fucking difference? Are you telling me that a Walmart at 10 AM on a Saturday is peak human existence? Motoring around in a worn-down electric scooter, buying food that will keep them in the scooter, and rinsing and repeating because they can’t afford to live any other way? Farming operations that are bootstrapped together by stimulant abuse and painkiller reliance. Desolation.
This is not about politics, so I will stop there. This is about the people of the flyover towns. An ode, as sick and twisted as it may be; I fear I know no better in this hangnail of a reality. Or not an ode, but rather an observation, or recognition, for no one else seeks to observe and recognize them. Living and dying in their places of birth, just like the old man who was a statue. Seeking a better life, or accepting that life cannot possibly exist in a more fruitful manner outside of those rolling hills. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the yuppie city boy that I have become is nothing but a mirage - an idea of Tony Zentelis. There is no denying the strong pull of the land when I traverse over those rolling hills and stop at those roadside farmer’s markets. The soft-serve ice cream parlors that are way to close to the street will always hold a special place in my heart. The greasy spoon diners and scummy townie bars, where the bartender starts to recognize you after a few stops in because you are both attractive and a good customer. A beautifully constructed rural/suburban Hellscape, with intruding corporations fighting against morally-sound yet easily corrupted politicians. Mom and pop slowly fading away into the shadow cast by the golden arches and green and white mermaid. Like ancient civilizations, they cannot be saved - they are doomed to slowly and gradually disappear into the swallowing sands of history. And that is exactly how they will be remembered.
In memoriam of the flyover town.
“Everything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back”
From the song ‘Atlantic City’
Meet Me in the Back Room After You Take That Shot of Brandy
House parties at my best friend’s house were always a bit strange, mostly because he left the lights on. Perhaps my couple of years at college had corrupted my sense of what was normal and what was not, and I never really noticed it until I had the opportunity to juxtapose the cold, musty dungeons of fraternity basements and campus houses with the vibrant, cozy finished basement of my friend’s parents’ place in the quaint suburbs.
Then again, my friend group and I were far from normal when it came to nightlife. I recall the one time we planned a Project X style party, which included a rigorous planning session in that very basement the night before. We were rising sophomores in college, fresh off a year of sneaking into bars as underaged kids and drinking cheap whiskey and light beer until we puked in our ex-girlfriend’s common area bathroom.
The party committee included the following: myself, who was responsible for purchasing the copious amounts of alcohol we were providing, given I was the only person with a fake ID; Nate, the cool guy, who was responsible for sending out invitations, which included sending out a mass text message, posting an address on Snapchat, and even sliding in girls DMs who we knew had plenty of friends to bring; then there was Andrew, who was the group mixologist, being a veteran drinker since the ripe age of 14, who would be making the jungle juice and Jell-o shots; and of course we had Tim, who was the security/logistics coordinator, who made sure that the house was as locked down as possible (which is a losing proposition if you know anything about house parties); and Andrew’s younger sister, who would be shuttling people to and from the neighborhood clubhouse, where our guests were instructed to park, so we could keep the street clean by my friend’s house in order to not draw unwanted attention to ourselves; and Jacob, who was in charge of snacks, because he was too dumb to do anything else; and then Kyle, who was responsible for general setup/being Andrew’s right hand man/errand boy.
I won’t go into details about how the night went, other than it was a smashing success in my (and everyone else’s) eyes, but a complete disaster in Andrew’s eyes, considering he was cleaning up the sticky remains of a half-eaten birthday cake that had been pissed on and splattered across the floor and leather couch following a short dispute over a late-night Taco Bell order. The main thing I remember is getting woken up at 8 AM sharp, still drunk from the night before, to an irate Andrew screaming at one of our fringe friends for what he had done with the piss-cake. I couldn’t help but laugh as we helped him mop the floor and dump out all the wounded soldier beer cans that had been left behind.
So I was a bit surprised to find out that my friend was still doing house parties a few years later following the infamous piss-cake situation. Regardless of his temperament, things had changed in the most tragic of ways; no longer were we blowing out inferior Bluetooth speakers with the latest hit singles in the genre of trap rap and playing aggressive drinking games while carefully attempting to not redecorate his mother’s basement.
No, the vibe at this particular house party was somber, with depressing mainstream country on the aux, and everyone surrounding the foosball table, perpetually stuck in never-ending games. I knew I had to take matters into my own hand, so confronted my host and asked him in the most condescending way possible if I could try my hand at dictating the night’s music selections. He reluctantly agreed, and within seconds, I had crafted my master plan. Under no circumstances was I going to fail in my critical mission to revive the college kid house party that was nearing a STAT call from the operating room.
My first order of business was queueing up the one song that I knew would get girls grinding on each other and guys dancing in a way that was disrespectful to their entire blood line – Hey Ya! By OutKast. The 2000s hip hop smash hit was the lowest of fruits hanging from the rotting apple tree, yet I knew it would resurrect the atmosphere and jam the adrenaline needle in Uma’s lifeless chest. Sure enough, as if I was Nostradamus with his book of predictions, my sight into the future had proved to be true. All of the goodie two shoes girls from my friend group had devolved into their frat house basement form, grinding on each other and singing the lyrics at the top of their lungs, “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. Indeed, the scene felt like one out of an early 21st century shindig, and everyone was truly living in the moment – no cell phones, no evil demon algorithms, no parents with watchful eyes – just pure sin. Original sin. Father Jackson would have a hey day with what he was seeing.
After enjoying the four or so minutes of pure bliss and euphoria, I meandered my way over to the kitchen for another refreshment. Cheap beer and two-ingredient cocktails were flowing like a flooded Chinese river washing away the countryside, but I opted for a different kind of elixir – one that would surely make me regret my choice the next morning. Her name was Bistra Slivovitz, and if the words “Serbian Plum Brandy” aren’t enough to make you shiver, well then you either must be a true Slav or you are dead on arrival. The history of Slivovitz and my friend Andrew’s place is a rich one; once known as a gag drink that was required to be consumed after losing a bet or a game, the rancid yet smooth taste had grown on me to the point where I was occasionally indulging myself with a shot or two of the damned beverage throughout the night.
As I looked at the oblong shaped, crystal bottle, which was about halfway full at the time, I noticed a familiar face creeping around the back of the bar while I was pouring my drink. Maddie, a longtime friend of mine, who was your stereotypical sweetheart Italian girl that you would take home for Christmas dinner and would almost immediately become a family favorite. Maddie and I had shown affection in years past, but life circumstances and secondary lovers had always kept us at arm’s length. And to be quite honest with you, arm’s length was the appropriate length for her and I, because the guilt I had carried from sleeping around with some of her closest friends was one I could not bear much longer.
Yes, as Maddie and I locked eyes, I could not help but think about Kaylee, who I had so romantically hooked up with in the back of my Ford Taurus in the summer of 2015 in the parking lot of her own Church. May God strike down upon Ye! Hark! Hark Tony! Fatherless sons and motherless daughters weep in unison at such a vile and disgusting sin. I seek vengeance on myself for stooping to levels even Satan himself would not dare to stoop to. Hark! I can feel the churning of Hell. The River Styx runs red with the blood of my mortality. I have asked for forgiveness. But that is not all, dear reader.
There is also Liv, who wedged her way in between me and my (now) ex-girlfriend, while are relationship was on its last living legs, and she crumbled it down, yes her, a great liberator, tearing down the Berlin Wall, re-writing the history books, and conquering new lands for herself. Liv and I grew fond of each other overnight, and the seeds of our summer fling germinated quickly. All of a sudden, the couch had become a grotesque object protruding from the destitute landscape that was my friend’s basement. That couch and I had some history. Liv and I had engaged in some tasteful hand action under a knit blanket while watching a horror movie just a few years prior. And just a few months prior, I had raw dogged my girlfriend on that same couch following a long night at prom. That fateful act was the downfall of our decision. She insisted, and I was too dumb to act otherwise. Then a World War was started over the purchasing of Plan B. I couldn’t help but think that some of my seed had leaked out of her caverns and seeped into that couch, and it was sitting there, patiently waiting for me to place my butt on the cushions one more time, so it could swallow me whole like a swamp monster, eating my insides and carving up my organs and taxidermizing my lifeless body to be hung on the couch’s mantlepiece as a reminder of who I once was. My sperm lurked deep beneath the surface of those couch cushions, and it was only a matter of time before the sperm had fertilized the fruitful eggs of the couch, and some horrifying, misshapen couch-human hybrid was birthed and wreaked havoc on the town, stomping around city streets and consuming whole children alive and spitting out their bones like an evil fairy tale monster. The murder of thousands of innocents would be on my hands, all because I had decided to commit adultery on that fateful night.
For this reason, I had to politely decline Maddie’s pass at me, despite her insisting that the back room was sitting there waiting for us to engage in our greatest fantasies. She told me she had always laid eyes on me, and that the lust in her heart was persisting across the years, despite us growing older and farther apart. I knew she was just going to hook up with one of my other friends anyway, so I really didn’t feel bad. Maybe Maddie wasn’t a good girl after all. And maybe we were all horrible people. With the lights still on, it did feel like an Inferno, as if the world was our stage, and we were being observed under a microscope by the entirety of the human populace. It was nearly 3 AM, and we were in a random basement in the middle of bum fuck nowhere, yet it felt like millions of pairs of eyes were fixated on our souls, eagerly awaiting our next move, as if we were all stars of a shitty reality TV show. I could barely stand the bright lights much longer – the dog needed let out of his cage.
So, I snuck away and carefully crept up the stairs, where I then made a left and tip-toed across the foyer and to the front door, so I could relieve myself in the calming presence of suburban shrubbery and enjoy a comforting cigarette under the stars of the cold summer night.
APPENDIX - NOTES FROM A FIRST DRAFT
So now onto the flyover towns, but before I dive deep on this, I want to address another type of flyover town – the ones you might find off the interstates. Anyone who is from middle America knows exactly what I am talking about – you pop off an interstate in between major cities to stop for a piss or some food, and you stumble upon these hellish suburban landscapes, where you can find the Holy Trinity of consumerism – McDonalds, Starbucks, and your favorite regional gas station. Make a trip into any of these places, and you will see some of the locale that hang out there. Construction workers who curse like sailors and look like they haven’t showered in years, running off sugar caffeine drinks and cured meats. The dictionary definitions of obesity. Pregnant teens and ignorant juveniles with rough home lives. Deadbeat dads, who may or may not return home after being sent out to buy milk and bananas at a Circle K. For the two miles on either side of the exit, what feels like the entirety of the suburb is littered with chain restaurants, mind-boggling motorists, and an uneasy amount of trash, debris, and general grayness. Many of these towns are known for being highway exits. You ask someone from your father’s generation how to get from A to B, and they will describe it to you with a series of turns that you are expected to memorize. If you ask them the best place to stop, they will tell you the exact exit number, name of the town, and which side of the road the Bob Evans is. They might even tell you the name of the waitress who served him his chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes with a side of green beans and a biscuit. She refilled his coke glass twice, and had a pleasant smile on her face. Perhaps she is the long, lost trad girl that RW posters are referring to when they talk about “returning”. Anyway, these are a type of flyover town that are worth mentioning.
Mr. Serious Writer Man (according to a female acquaintance)