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On the Precipice of the Stars

The following is a short story I entered into a contest for the literary journal The First Line.  The journal and it's subsequent contest gives the writer the first sentence of a story.  The writer must create the story from this first sentence.  Here is one I submitted over the summer. To see more about The First Line, visit there website:

Fifty miles west of Bloomington lies Hillsboro, a monument to middle class malaise.  The trees grow green, yes, and the sky is blue, same as anywhere else. I suppose that doesn't mean very much to people around here.  It still means a lot to me, though I wouldn't be too quick to display as much.  I mean, it's only a blue sky and it's only green trees. Nothing to write home about, that's for sure.

Today is Sunday.  Most folks will be at the church, as far as I can surmise.  If anything, they sure as hell aren't coming to the diner.  One would figure that on Sundays people would like to congregate here after church for a nice meal.  It is a day of rest, after all, so no one should be doing any cooking.  Why not stop in for a late lunch or early dinner to help take the burdens off of their shoulders?

Pastor Jones does it.  Every Sunday he stops in here at four o'clock right on the dot.  He orders the same items every time.  Two eggs, over easy, two strips of bacon and home fries are the standard bearer of the holy man's Sunday meal.  He washes it down with freshly squeezed orange juice that I poured directly from the carton into the ewer earlier that day.  That's all he ever has.  Nothing more and nothing less.  We don't talk much, but I do know that he's been in Hillsboro for the last twenty years.  He goes about his routine and is in and out of the diner in 37 minutes.  Every damn Sunday.

Monday's roll around and I"m already wide awake at the crack of dawn.  I watch as many of the men head off to make the hour drive to Bloomington.  Some work in offices; their briefcases firmly in hand and ties knotted around their neck.  Others, like Steve Knight, work construction.  His cooler is filled with the standard: A sandwich, a baggie full of chips, an apple or an orange, and a six pack of Miller Genuine Draft.  I stay behind and watch all of this unfold like clockwork every single morning, a mug of coffee in my hand and a cigarette dangling from my lips.

I don't mind it here, really I don't.  People love small towns or so they say.  I've never quite found the appeal and I've been here for over a year now.  One street runs through the main part of town.  One four-way stoplight directs the minimal traffic we see.  The kids, the ones that can drive, like to drive up and down the street on Friday nights.  They drive.  They say hello.  Then they head out into the fields to fill their gullets with barley.  The cops look the other way, as to which I agree with.  Let the kids have their fun, I say.  We all got up to shenanigans when we were younger.  They deserve the same.

I do like the nights here.  In the city, the sound of sirens, motorcycles, yelling, screaming, and honking attack the eardrums on a nightly basis.  No matter where you turn in the city, the skyline is ablaze with twinkling lights amid a hive of activity.  Out here, the night provides serenity and that's something I cherish.  Stars pepper the night sky and there is something soothing about staring into the cosmos for an eternity.  I even bought a telescope for certain nights and tried to get my neighbors to join me.  I cherish my moments of solitude, yes, yet everyone has politely declined my invitations thus far.  They have their ways and I felt this was a good way to meet them on a basic human level.  Yet they declined.  My neighbors are always out until dusk in the summer, going through the motions of their daily lives.  As soon as darkness falls, many run inside to their video games and their television shows.

I work at the diner a few days a week.  I'm pretty set as far as money goes so I'm not too worried about hours.  Some days are better than others.  The few Seniors from the high school come down for lunch.  It's their right, I suppose.  Their God given right handed down to them by a generation of malt shop thrill seekers.  The Seniors come in here, have a couple of laughs, throw a few fries around, and return to their mediocrity.  The kids here, they have two futures.  They can stay in town or they can leave this town.  Too often they look into the mirror that is their parents and see their futures.  A future of shattered dreams that leads to a small town on the outskirts of greatness.

That's how I arrive here.  It was not by the same path, mind you, but a similar path nonetheless.  Greatness can be achieved by any means, through various channels, and can arrive with a few regrets.  I arrived at this point with none of that in mind.  My wife was from here and when she got sick, this is where she wanted to be.  She wanted to be closer to her family, her childhood friends, and the people she grew up with.  I did not fight her on this.  We have no kids and our friends from the city  were merely acquaintances.  If she wanted the mundane and the malaise of her hometown, then that's a wish I could grant.  If this tiny brick in the house of life was what she wanted, it was up to me to provide the mortar in which it was built.  Peace.  It's what we all desire.  Peace and greatness.

She left this world about nine months ago.  We were once newlyweds building a future.  Then a cruel fate leads you to this place.  Suddenly you won't be the old couple that gently touches hands.  The moments in between are the moments I miss the most.  The sunsets, the sunrises, and the memories that will never be wiped away.  Hillsboro will remain my home because in the end it's what she truly wanted.  This empty seat next to me will always be saved for her.

No regrets.  I lead a simple life.  This town, this monument, harbors no ill will.  They accepted me and went about their lives.  They have their Saturday picnics, their family portraits, and their Sunday papers.  I like the picnics yet want the black tie affairs.  I enjoy the paper but prefer searching the internet while at a cafe.  Homes here are built upon acres yet I yearn for a loft on a lot.  The horizon stretches for miles into the future and I can only peer into the past.  I have the moon and the stars at my disposal yet the one thing I truly desired left me: the universe.


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