Monday, February 9, 2009

Miranda And Syl Talk About Safe Towns

There are two versions. First the one I rejected:

Mom looked skeptical. "Even if a place like that exists, how would Alex have gotten passes to it?" she asked.

Syl shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe he stole them. But safe towns definitely exist. I met a girl who lived in a town that had been made into one."

"What do you mean?" I asked. "How do you make a town into a safe town?"

"All I know is what she told me," Syl said. "Her mother taught at Sexton College. I remember the name because of Anne Sexton." She glared at Mom, who I guess knew who Anne Sexton was. "French, I think," Syl continued. "Not that that matters. This girl, I guess she was your age, Miranda, because she was still living at home when it happened. She said it was rough, but not too bad at first. I've never heard of Sexton College, but I gather it had a big agricultural department, where they grew crops. They had an early harvest, and the professors all shared, so there was food for a while. But then, right after the air got bad, everyone who lived in the town was told their houses were being taken by the government, and they all had twenty four hours to pack their belongings, and they'd be driven by busses to the nearest evac camp. From then on, they'd be on their own. And that's pretty much what happened. A bunch of the professors got together, to find out what was going on, and they were told the town was going to be used as a research facility, and their houses were needed for the scientists and their family. For the greater good. Not that I've seen much good coming out of it."

Now here's the much longer, way better version:

“There was something you said once,” I began. “About truck drivers.”

“What about them?” she asked, propping herself up with her elbow.

“You said they stopped sometimes when they were going to safe towns,” I said. “And picked people up.”

“Girls,” Syl said. “I don’t think I ever saw one stop for a guy. And they never did on the way to safe towns. The trucks would be filled with supplies then. On the way back, after leaving stuff off, they might stop for a girl.”

“Did they ever stop for you?” I asked.

“What business is that of yours?” she said.

“No,” I said. “I mean, you don’t understand. I was just wondering if one of them told you where he’d come from, where the safe town was. That’s all.”

“No,” Syl said. “They knew better than to talk.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. I’m sorry if I bothered you.”

“That’s all right,” Syl said. “It’s a different world out there. Matt understands that. Well, he claims he understands, but he doesn’t like hearing about it. What it’s really like. So I don’t talk to him about it. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t either.”

“I didn’t intend to,” I said. “This has nothing to do with Matt. Or anything you did with truckers.”

Syl gave me a funny look. “What are you asking about?” she said. “Safe towns?”

I nodded. “I thought maybe a trucker told you where one was.”

“It wouldn’t matter if one had,” Syl said. “Safe towns are for the important people, scientists and millionaires. It’s not like you can go knocking on their doors and they’ll let you in. I know Laura’s had some books published, but that doesn’t make her important enough for a safe town.”

Alex wasn’t either, but he had passes.

“But you know they exist,” I said. “Did the truckers tell you about them?”

“The truckers kept their mouths shut,” Syl said. “It’s a good job, being a trucker. You and your family get to live in a decent home, with food and fuel. Not a safe town, maybe, but good enough. You get a job like that, you don’t break the rules.”

“Except picking girls up,” I said.

“There’s no rule against that,” Syl said. “As long as you get your work done on time.”

“Well, thanks anyway,” I said. “I thought you might know where a safe town was, but I guess you don’t.”

“Sit down,” she said. “I hate the way you’re standing there, glaring at me.”

“I’m not glaring,” I said, but I did as she said, and sat on the mattress by her side.

“I know something’s going on,” Syl said. “Hal refuses to talk to Lisa about it, but the tension over there is even worse than the tension over here. If that’s possible. And since you’re asking about safe towns, I have to assume that has something to do with it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know anything about safe towns,” I said. “I remembered your mentioning them, that’s all. And maybe I did fantasize we could get into one, but apparently we can’t, and you don’t know where one is anyway, so what difference does it make.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t know where one was,” Syl replied. “I said none of the truckers ever told me.”

“You mean, you do know?” I said. “Someone else told you?”

For the first time since I’ve known her, Syl looked uncomfortable. “Look,” she said. “There’s things I’ve told Matt and things I haven’t, but the only reason I haven’t is because he hates hearing about them. All right? I’m not ashamed of anything I did. I’m alive and I’m here because of what I did. Matt knows that. He accepts that. But he doesn’t like the details.”

“I won’t tell Matt,” I said. “I swear.”

“Scout’s honor?” Syl asked, and then she laughed. “All right. I believe you. And it doesn’t matter anyway. I was in an evac camp. This was, I don’t know, maybe a year ago. Pretty early on. The camps have guards, military police, young guys mostly. And one of them had gotten his hands on some booze. Gin, vodka. I don’t know how, but he and his buddies decided to party. Which they did with some of us girls. We left the camp and broke into an empty house, and had a good time.” She paused. “It really was fun,” she said. “But the important thing was keeping them happy. If a guard liked you, you might get extra food or a blanket. It was better if they liked you.”

I looked out the window at the perpetually grey sky.

“There were lots of girls,” Syl continued. “Girls and women. The guards had their pick, so you did whatever they asked, and you tried to make them feel important, like they were the star quarterback, and you weren’t even a cheerleader.”

“Matt isn’t like that,” I said.

“No,” Syl said. “Matt isn’t anything like that. Neither is Hal or Charlie, or Alex. And the guards wouldn’t have been like that either, probably, if things hadn’t changed. But things did change, so they were full of themselves, and if you wanted some extra food, you acted like they were the greatest things on earth. And they loved talking about how powerful they were. Maybe because they weren’t really powerful, or maybe because they were a lot more powerful than they ever used to be. Anyway, we were all a little bit drunk, and they started bragging about how many people they’d killed. Then they started talking about the first time they’d killed someone. And one of the guys said the first time he’d killed people was when he’d been assigned to clear out a college, to make it a safe town. It was funny, he said, because it was Sexton College, and he’d applied there and been rejected, and there he was, shooting professors who were resisting. I said I hope he got the dean of admissions, and he laughed.”

“How can you remember the name?” I asked. “If you were drunk?”

“I wasn’t that drunk,” Syl said. “And I was still trying out different names, so I thought about Anne Sexton, only Anne is pretty dull and you can’t call yourself Sex. So I went with Sylvia Plath instead. I like her more anyway.”

I had no idea who she was talking about, but it didn’t matter. “Did the guard say where it was?” I asked. “Sexton College.”

Syl shook her head. “He’d said too much as it was,” she said. “The next day all the girls who’d been at the party were rounded up and told to leave the camp. Three of us stuck together for a while. But then one girl got sick and the other girl was her sister, I think, or her cousin, I don’t know. Anyway, they stayed behind and I kept going. That’s how it was. People came and went. The two months I’ve been with Matt is the longest I’ve been with anyone, since before.”

“Matt loves you,” I said.

“I know,” Syl said. “Isn’t it amazing.”

There was nothing I could say to that. I got up, thanked Syl, and left the room. And now I’m in my closet, writing all this down, trying to figure out how to find out where Sexton College is, and what to do if I can find out.