Men (and Women) in the Town [Excerpt]

Excerpt from the (long) short story, Men (and Women) in the Town. The fully published version appears in Issue 6, Episode 1 of The Atlas Review.

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Municipal Castles are where men go. They, the Castles, are always on the sides of towns, not the centers—because a town’s center is too bright. The sun shines down on it too directly; and for Castles to stay standing, they need a certain amount of shade, to cool and slow the heat and speed of erosion. Municipal Castles are pale and yellow, the color of ink from a highlighter thirty seconds after its tip has been wiped across black letters on a white page. Municipal Castles are tall, but not as tall as one would think. Most people only appear shorter than them with their shoes off. Only men have the rights or credentials or reasons to enter Municipal Castles. (Women have no business there. Women have no business.) In the Castles are many rooms, the busiest being the Hot Hot House, where men gather to sit and sweat. In the Hot Hot House, men talk about their days and plans, but not their dreams. For them, plans are realer than dreams; plans are matters of business. (Women have no plans because they have no business. Women only have dreams, which they hardly ever talk about; they try to live them out instead, and that hardly ever works.) These men mostly talk about their projects of manhood, spending their lives lunging forward and extending themselves into the world. And for what? So they might know what a self is. So they might see a self for a period of time. So they might know one self in the world for a time. (Women don’t know anything. They imagine instead, spending their lives forming and feeling and remembering and recollecting for all time or no time—the two look the same in dreams.)

The Hot Hot House where men meet is always full of steam. Its walls are the color of sunlight in the late afternoon. The Hot Hot House is the color of hay or burlap or manila envelopes or Saturn or No. 2 pencils or sweet potato mash or the yolks of eggs laid by wild and healthy chickens or the morning urine of a person who did not drink enough water the night before after staring up at the dark midnight sky gulping whiskey and smoking cigarettes. (Women do not meet. They stand in their homes on their bare feet in cool corners the color of limes and eggplants and moonlit faces and grass in the night and cold fingers and water that’s just been run for a bath and dew and clouds moving in and blood that isn’t red or brown, blood that comes from the furthest, deepest, darkest, oldest part of them, the part of them that is closest to before they ever existed.)

What other rooms are in this town’s Municipal Castle? Well, there are rooms for sleeping, rooms for “drinking numbers” (Women call this playing lottery.), rooms for laying out plans on giant pieces of paper with special pens. There are rooms for physical exercise and rooms just for talking about physical exercise. There are rooms for “playing lottery” (Women call this drinking in numbers.) and rooms for sobering up. There are rooms to sharpen saws, for many men are in the business of cutting trees, while other men hold other kinds of employment. There are rooms for the black men and rooms for the white men and rooms for the foreign men. These separate rooms are remnants from older times when one white man decided that he and other white men were totally and completely different from all the black men they had brought to the town to cut down the trees that would become their houses. The white men who listened to that white man did not think they were that different from the foreign men who arrived a while later, mostly, seemingly of their own volition. (Some women think that the foreign men had been forced to leave other places, much like the black men were forced into the town.) They were, however, the white and foreign men, according to another white man, still different enough to warrant building yet another separate room in the Municipal Castle. But that was then and this is now and these times are modern and not olden—they are certainly not ancient—and so the need for separate rooms in all the world’s Municipal Castles has long been abolished. And today most men, black, white, and foreign, meet in any and all rooms at any and all times.

No one—no man—should have sex in the Municipal Castle. Sex is probably the only activity that isn’t available or allowed to occur there. The men of the town talk about this with pride, about how other men might be, are often rumored to be, having sex in other Municipal Castles in other towns, but not in this one because, really, no one is supposed to be having sex in any Municipal Castle. (The women of this town know—for they have raised or are sisters or wives of—men who have definitely had sex in the Municipal Castle. “When the rest of your life exists within those walls, in such an intensely intimate way, and that is a choice you’ve made, willingly and joyfully, why wouldn’t you put yourself in a hole that is right next to you, whenever you feel like it, as opposed to tucking it away, going all the way home and having to get it up again? Or, if you were born with the desire to have sex with other men, which is a fine thing to be born with, because being born is such a fine and ordinary and miraculous thing to do, then what makes the Municipal Castle different from any other castle or building or dwelling or structure with rooms and walls and a ground to stand on, a ground to lay your body on so that it lies under or on top of the body of the one you want to jump in and then rest next to?” These are the kinds of questions the women rhetorically ask each other at the town market in the morning while picking breadfruit or plantains or pineapples or cantaloupe.)

Back at the Municipal Castle, in one of the many Snack-Break Rooms, a man (maybe he is the husband or father or brother or uncle of one of those women at the market) begins telling a story.

“This one time,” he chortles holding a crescent of cantaloupe cut by his wife who had bought it fresh and perfectly ripe at the market in the center of town this morning, “I fucked Josette so hard I thought all my seed would come out of her nose. I fucked her so hard I thought she’d be pregnant with a hundred—no, a thousand—of my sons; though, don’t get me wrong, little girls are great, too. Eight and a half months later came our baby Krystal. I must have really given it my all that night because Josette hasn’t been pregnant since.” The man bites into a bit of cantaloupe flesh too close to the rind and winces. “That was twelve years ago.”

(Krystal, who has been hiding in the Snack-Break Room behind a shelving unit to the men’s left, has never heard this version of the story of her conception and birth, and wonders if the loss of that last half a month—for at twelve years of age she had already learned nine months makes a full term—is where all her loneliness comes from.)

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