BY MAIA PARAS EVRIGENIS
Read by the author
Oliver James Moore was new to Ellwood County. He was a kind man, a lonely man, a man of few words. He lived alone, at the corner of a five-way intersection, in his small, tasteful cottage.
His life was easy. On the weekdays he worked at the local hardware store, in the back room, the one with the boxes. He was good at his work. He opened, he sorted, he stacked. He found a rhythm in it. In the evenings he sat on his porch with a notebook and a pen, looking down the five colliding streets while sketching the sunset he spied on through the Messerole trees. On the weekends he stayed home, working on his latest project, a bird house, a short poem, or a new recipe. He was seen sometimes at the cinema accompanied by one bag of unbuttered popcorn, or at Reverend Price’s Sunday sermons, or the farmers market. He was known for his solitude, and his short, casual conversation.
One evening while Mr. Moore sat on his porch sketching the warmth of the reliable sunset, he saw Mrs. Goodriche, an almost gray-haired woman from a few streets over coming toward him. She walked with a slant, as if something weighed her down on her left side.
Mr. Moore did not want to talk. He began to focus more deeply on his sketch.
“Mr. Moore, may I speak with you for a moment?”
She sat on the step next to him.
“You don’t talk much, do you, Mr. Moore?” she asked.
It turned out that Mrs. Goodriche just needed someone to listen. She could not talk with her friends, as the town of Ellwood was too small and too prone to gossip. She needed someone slightly separated, slightly unknown, someone who’d keep quiet. Mr. Moore was the perfect person to do so.
Mrs. Goodriche began unfolding her failing marriage. She talked of her husband’s un-attraction to her, and his inability to make her feel loved.
Mr. Moore did not provide any advice. In fact, he did not say anything at all. But still, it was a seemingly sweet interaction. She smiled, thanked him, and seemed lighter upon leaving.
Mr. Moore smiled too. Today he had made a difference. It was a feeling he was not used to, and he very much enjoyed it. He slept with this smile on his face, and much better than he had in months.
The next evening, Mr. Moore sat on his porch sketching the pinks and oranges seeping through the trees. He saw a figure in the distance and thought it must be Mrs. Goodriche again.
But instead it was Mrs. Smith from the green house down the lane.
Mrs. Smith was a tall, thin, frail looking woman. Mr. Moore’s only previous interactions with her had been cash exchanges when he bought honey from her stand at the farmers market. She walked toward him with urgency in her step. Her long, tan dress caught the warm wind.
She sat down next to Mr. Moore, explaining that she had heard he had been of great help to Mrs. Goodriche. She hoped he could do the same for her.
Mrs. Smith spoke of her teenage daughter’s little rebellions. Sarah-Ann was a lot to handle. She spoke of short skirts and low-cut tops, and her daughter’s relationship with the Woodrow boy. She worried about her girl, but also about her son. He didn’t seem to have a lot of friends at Ellwood High.
Again Mr. Moore did not offer advice, but could still see a stronger, more confident Mrs. Smith in the way she walked home, as if she now knew that somehow her children would be okay. He slept well again, as he felt for a second time that he really made a difference.
The following evening brought Mr. Smith. Then Mr. Smith sent Mr. Mayfair, and Mr. Mayfair sent Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Hamilton sent Mrs. Hamilton, and Mrs. Hamilton sent Mrs. Miller, and so on and so on. It seemed that Mr. Moore was the new rage around town, the new go-to for listening and top choice for secret keeping.
He heard about the neighborhood quarrels of Ellwood, the mid-life crises, the work failures, the bickering couples. He was good at listening to these problems, and the people loved him for it. They thanked him graciously for his open ears, bringing him freshly-cut flowers and tomatoes from their gardens.
Mr. Moore thought about these conversations during long days of opening, sorting, and stacking at the hardware store. The job seemed boring to him now, and he counted down the hours until he could get to his cottage, eager to find out who he would hear from next. He liked this new hobby of his. In secret, he made up little names for himself, like The All-Knower of Ellwood and the Ellwood Ear.
He was getting to know the people of Ellwood almost better than they knew themselves. It was knowledge he took pride in. He felt needed, powerful, and purposeful. He was meant to give these people a place to breathe.
One night Mr. Moore waited what seemed much too long for someone to sit with him that evening. He was not used to such delays. When the sun had fully set, he shrugged, picked up his abandoned sketchbook, and started for his front door.
But he heard a voice as his hand touched the knob.
He turned around and found a girl at the street.
Sarah-Ann Smith told the stories her mother never heard. She spoke of the high school and the other kids, about how she did not care for her classes, about how she feared she would end up in Ellwood for the rest of her life. No one ever seemed to leave here, she said. She spoke of her best friend Jillian Mayfair, and how much she hated her. She spoke of popularity. She spoke of sex with Jimmy Woodrow, about how it made her feel worthless, beautiful, wanted, and dirty in her favorite way. She spoke of her desire to be somebody different, somebody who dressed different, who was different. She wanted to be something, anything. Something more than Ellwood. She wanted to feel. To be a poet or an extremist or an activist. To not end up like her parents. She spoke of her nightmares, specifically the one where she was stuck in a circular vacuum, spinning faster and faster in smaller and smaller circles and how the centripetal force held her down. She gasped for the air of an unknown world.
Mr. Moore did not speak at all, and even if he had chosen to, he would not have known what to say. He did not enjoy listening to Sarah-Ann Smith. She did not tell the kind of secrets he was used to hearing.
He did not sleep well that night. The next day he searched for the usual rhythm in the way he opened, sorted, and stacked in the back room at the hardware store. But he could not find it.
That evening, he sat at his kitchen table for a half an hour, staring at the front door, daring himself to go outside. But he was afraid of who would come. Sarah-Ann Smith had made him afraid of what he might hear next.
He peered out the window to see a different girl crossing the five-way intersection. He knew instantly who it had to be.
Jillian Mayfair spoke of her secret love for Jimmy Woodrow, and of what she would do to be as beautiful as Sarah-Ann Smith. She spoke of her secretly perfect grades and her early acceptance to a far off university. She spoke of her desire to leave Ellwood but her acceptance of the fact that it would never happen. She did not possess the money or the courage to go. She spoke of the way her father drank on the evenings her mother went to Mrs. Hamilton’s. He sat alone at his desk with a bottle of gin, staring at the bills piling up before him. She spoke of the way he called for her those evenings. She spoke of the mask she wore the next day, and how it had now been worn too regularly to take off. She spoke of realizing this the one time she tried.
Mr. Moore did not sleep that night. He realized now that things had gone much too far. He did not want to know these stories. He did not want to hear. He did not want to listen. He did not want these problems. Where had the adults gone?
He laid in bed, longing to forget all that he knew, slowly falling deeper and deeper inside himself, trying to forget, trying to forget all that he remembered.
He did not sit on his porch the next evening. He sat at the kitchen table, blinds closed, sketching the darkness of the indoors.
The knock came about an hour in.
Thomas Goodriche needed him just like everybody else. He spoke of his hatred for Jimmy Woodrow, who stalked him at school to beat him up in the nearest bathrooms and empty classrooms. He spoke of the teachers who gave him good grades yet turned a blind eye to this harassment. He spoke of the beating, the getting up, the beating again, and how he learned to just take it. He told about the day he ditched out early after a pretty bad beating, only to come home to find his mother in bed with Mr. Hamilton. He spoke of the horror of the scene, the disgust, the fucking hypocrisy of Ellwood. He spoke of the masks. The filth of the people. He spoke of the madness in each and every one of them. He spoke of the madness inside of himself.
Mr. Moore was now met by a new teenager every evening. He met with Jansen Miller and Tina Mayfair and Catherine Macalister and Kevin Green, and many others who spoke of more and more horrible things. He heard about love and hate and cheat and win and drink and starve and fall and the inability to get back up. They spoke of pills and parents and masks and grins and tears and an effort in living they could no longer maintain.
Mr. Moore paced his house late each night, putting together the pieces of Ellwood County. He did not know what he was supposed to do. The secrets slowly ate away at him, tearing at his soul, making him question and despise every ounce of humanity he saw around him.
He stopped working on his projects and he no longer drew the sunset. All he seemed to be able to do now was write. He spit the secrets out of his head and onto the page. He wrote of the cheating and the lying and the utter delirium of the unexposed world in which these children lived. He wrote of his inner desperation to tell someone, but who could he tell, and why would he? Ellwood would fall apart if they knew all this, just as he was starting to.
After a month of these secrets, he knew he could live like this no longer. His hair was falling out, he could never get to sleep, and his bones were moving much too close to his skin.
It was time for Mr. Moore to get out of Ellwood.
The next morning Mr. Moore woke up before sunrise and left the cottage as it was. He ripped the pages from his notebook and in the wastebasket by the stairs he burned the secrets of Ellwood County. He got in his car filled with just a few possessions.
And he drove.
He drove the circles of Ellwood to the edge, feeling proud of this escape. It was the right thing to do. Things would be different now. Things would be better.
As he turned on to Madison Street, the sun began to rise, and he rolled down his window, relieved to breathe the Ellwood air for one last time. These people, these stories, would soon be a part of his past.
He turned for Huntington Avenue, as it would take him to the freeway. And knowing how close he was to his escape made him laugh out loud for the first time in weeks. He was finally free.
But the exit never came. He must have missed it somewhere in all his laughs.
He drove in circles to find his way, and even pulled over to scan the old map in the glove box.
An hour passed and Mr. Moore still had not left Ellwood. He tried to take the surface streets out of town, but the more he drove in one direction, the more he hit the streets of the other. He was sure he was going the right way, but he never was. Suddenly he was back at Louisa Place, and then Marion Street, and then in the middle of his five-way intersection.
It seemed that Mr. Moore would not be leaving Ellwood after all.
The next few evenings, he did not sit on his porch. He did not answer the front door when he heard them knock.
But the young needed him. So they still came, night after night, congregating together in large groups, peering through his windows, calling his name.
One night the desire to tell their secrets was just too much. They gathered and beat down his door and swarmed the cottage, as bits and pieces of their stories began to sputter out of them. They threw their hands over their mouths and held their tongues in an effort to shut themselves up while they viciously searched to be the one to find him first. They threw chairs and tables aside and kicked over the trash bin of ash as they mauled up the stairs to his locked bedroom door.
By now they could not hold their secrets in any longer, and they screamed them out at the top of their lungs, screaming together so loudly that the only secrets they could hear were their own. And with these screams, the door came down and they piled in, only to find Mr. Moore dead, flat, lifeless on his bed, with blood pouring out of his ears.