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Hometown Stories


For the next few years after I graduated from college and married, I lived in an apartment in my hometown and taught 11th and 12th grade English classes in a small town on the Lake Ontario shoreline. Memories of those years flooded back when I started to write about two short stories composed while I taught at that high school and lived in that apartment and, in an earlier draft of this post, much more came out that didn't relate to the stories and had to be deleted. Most of my family still lived in my hometown then and we often visited them and enjoyed their company, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life in my hometown. My college had been only 70 miles away, an hour and a half's drive south, and my work now was 16 miles away, a half-hour's drive north. I'd seen little of the world beyond western New York. Actually, it was only because New York State required me to earn more than a bachelor's degree to keep on teaching that we ended up moving to Iowa so I could study writing in graduate school.


My first year of high school teaching had sometimes challenged my temperament, but over time, as I attempted to behave more like myself rather than pretending to be an authoritative and commanding figure, I began to feel pretty much at home in the role. My habit of writing often allowed me to step aside from my pedagogical persona. I occasionally published short reviews of television shows for the weekend edition of the Buffalo Evening News and continued to compose short fiction. Material I've unearthed from a folder of old typescripts from that period reveals that I drew on both my working environment and my residential situation for inspiration. Two completed stories I've found both remind me where I was then and what I imagined about my circumstances at the time.


"One of the Guys" is set in a men's faculty room in a small-town high school. Reading the opening almost instantaneously makes me envision both the setting that prompted it and the faces of the men I spent free periods with there at the time. The school had two separate faculty lounges, each gender-specific, on opposite wings of the building; rather than go into the faculty room just down the hall from my classroom, I quickly learned, I needed to navigate two long hallways to use the bathroom in the men's lounge. The short story centers on a young English teacher, newly hired, as he tries to connect with other male faculty, some of them military veterans his father's age, one young enough to have been their student who identifies with them completely. The story centers on the new teacher's frustrations with his peers and ends with him giving up on becoming one of the guys and finding community with his wife's elementary faculty friends.


"Agnes Dunrose's Hobby" was a completely different story, centered on an older woman's solitary life in a second-floor apartment and her efforts to interpret the lives of the people around her with whom she has no actual social contact. In my real life, the older woman who lived above us only complained about the noise in our apartment once, and we had little interaction with her, partly because we left early in the morning for our jobs in that country school district many miles away and also because we often spent free time elsewhere with my brother and his family or my parents or with friends we eventually made at work. Agnes Dunrose's hobby is spying on neighbors and culminates in her efforts to get a reaction from the newlywed couple downstairs by interfering with the temperature of their shower water. The young husband lurches away from the suddenly overheated flow, loses his balance in the bathtub, and dies when hits his head in the fall. The story ends with Agnes moving out of town to a retirement community where she might not be so isolated as in her apartment and perhaps less inclined to engage herself in a problematic hobby.


"One of the Guys" draws heavily on my own experience; "Agnes Dunrose's Hobby" arises out of imagining a fictional life. As I consider them together now, I discover some familiarity with their themes: individual isolation in different settings, one mostly social, the other mostly psychological, both ending with the main characters altering their environments. I have a strong suspicion that there may have been some kind of link between those main characters' behaviors and the mindset of the newlywed teacher who created them. I don't remember ever attempting to publish either of them. Reading them now, I don't have an urge to try.


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