The Town Center Ritual


You sit down by the fire to warm your tired bones. The cardboard crates, old pallets, pine straw, shreds of paper, and other debris fueling the fire crackle beneath the glowing flames, gently whispering soothing sounds against the silence of the long, dark night. It has been another interminably long day, as always this time of year, choring around the camp and roving the scattered junk atop the earthen mounds searching for supplies to stockpile against the coming winter. It won’t be long now, winter. You’ve felt it in the air for a few weeks. Soon the days will grow shorter, and the long cold nights will follow. That is still a way off in the future, however. For now, the night is warm. The insects who made it through the extinction quietly chirr and click in the browning trees. The rest of the group is there too, murmuring and drinking while they wait for the storyteller to take her place on the old recliner at the head of the group. 

A moment later, she arrives, settles in. She removes her spectacles–the purple ones you found in the pile last spring, you note with a surge of joy–and wipes them on the underside of her shirt, a little smile twinkling in her eyes and upturning the corners of her mouth as she rubs clockwise patterns on the glasses. She pauses occasionally to peer through them at the fire until, satisfied at last, she places the spectacles back on her kindly old face, waits a moment for the chatter to die off, and clears her throat. 

The group buzzes with anticipation for a tale of the Old Ones. “They called this place once,” she begins, “a Town Center.” Puzzled murmurs ring the fire. “People traveled hundreds of miles to visit the Town Center,” she continues. “It was a place of power and riches, beautiful things, terrible desires.”

“Before the bad times, this land was part of a great city. Everything you see was ruled by a council, who represented the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city. The council’s masters were elite for a reason, the stories say, the hardest-working, wisest, and most intelligent of all the people in the city. That’s why the council did what these brilliant and dedicated masters told them to do. Well, one day, they decided that the city needed a great palace of magic and ritual, a place for all the most powerful wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs to come and serve the people. Recognizing the wisdom of this plan, the people set out to build the palace, the Town Center. 

“It took many years to build, summers and winters of clearing, sawing, chopping, lashing. People gave their lives to the project. Workers moved their homes closer to the worksite–this place, right here–so they could work longer and harder, just like the wise masters who dreamed up the palace. For their part, the masters watched from a distance, waiting for the people to gain honor through hard work.”

“Finally, at long last, the palace was complete. The people rejoiced. Just like the masters predicted, the Great Ones came. We remember the names of those wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs. Harken now to the fragments they have left us, and honor them with me!”

Here the storyteller’s voice descends into a lower register, an intoned ritual from the depths of memory.  

“Harken now to Mayors Jewelry,” she says: “For more than a century, MAYORS has been defining luxury by bringing the world’s most exclusive selection of iconic brands to connoisseurs of fine jewelry and timepieces.”

“Hark!,” the group responds. “Honor!”  

“Harken now to Tiffany & Co.: In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany arrived in New York with a vision of spectacular beauty that went on to redefine glamour and style around the world.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Psycho Bunny: Over the years, the brand has developed a cult following for men who don’t have to sacrifice irreverence for style. Psycho Bunny is about contradictions; it is mischievous, yet refined; timeless, yet contemporary.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Louis Vuitton: Founded in Paris in 1854, Louis Vuitton is synonymous with the art of travel. Its iconic trunks, luggage and bags have accompanied journeys throughout time.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to LoveSac: Sactionals are the most adaptable, adjustable, reconfigurable, forgivable, livable, lovable furniture on earth.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Tommy Bahama: Inspired by the relaxed sophistication of coastal living, Tommy Bahama is dedicated to the good life. Stylish, upscale offerings include island apparel for men and women, footwear, jewelry, accessories and home décor, all designed to help you relax in style.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to lululemon: lululemon is a yoga-inspired, technical athletic apparel company for yoga, running, training and most other sweaty pursuits. While Vancouver, Canada is where you can trace the company’s beginnings, the global community is where you’ll find lululemon’s soul.”

“Hark! Honor!” 

On and on she continues, each name, each ancient text ringing into the night like an incantation. The fire grows to a roar as the group listens to the old storyteller in wonder, harkening, honoring, spellbound by the strange words stripped of their meaning and power by the ravages of time. Onward she continues, a hundred names more, a hundred and fifty.

“Harken now to Lane Bryant: As the leading fashion brand for curvy women, Lane Bryant continually strives not only to be first in fashion and fit, but to be everywhere, be everything you expect us to be. From clothing and accessories to our Cacique line of intimates, look to Lane Bryant for the latest looks.”

“Hark! Honor!”

Finally, some time later, exhausted by the effort of intonation and memory, the storyteller rasps, “Harken now to Tesla: Forget everything you know about the automobile. The Tesla electric drivetrain offers a radically different experience. The driver, the car, and the environment connect in ways they’ve never connected before.” She slumps in the old recliner, head hanging heavily, breathing softly.

“Hark,” we whisper. “Honor.”  

The fire is dying now, its embers glowing deep orange and golden yellow as the storyteller regains her composure. The group is silent and tense, worn by the ritual of honor, ready for the storyteller to open the circle. A cool wind stirs the trees and she lifts her face to meet the gaze of the expectant circle. Her eyes are tired and sad, brimming with pain for the loss of it all.  “O Great Ones!,” she says, “We can only imagine the mighty things you might have done, if only the bad times had not come to punish us all.”

“Let us be worthy,” the group says. The usual ending. 

With this, the group relaxes. A young man across the dying fire laughs awkwardly, relieved to mark the end of the ritual. From a cloth sack next to the recliner the old storyteller removes a bottle. Clear liquid sloshes against the glass as she removes the cap, upends the bottle, takes a long swallow. Wincing, she passes the bottle down to the woman on her left. You see the woman’s face through the liquor and the glass, distorted in the soft firelight. The cool wind tousles your hair. A sympathetic burn streaks your throat and warns your stomach as you watch the bottle pass from hand to hand. 

“Let us be worthy,” you say. 

Flash Fiction: Spanish Moss

From Shade: Selections from the Shade Tobacco Region Oral History Project

Off in the woods there was a palace I saw it with princes and prelates and fools up under the swingin moss dancin their old jigs in them fancy getups like in the old movies what used to come on TV on Sunday. I saw one he was jinglin them little teeny bells like a song at Christmastime just a prancin around back in there like you know what and I thought that was funny but it hurt my head too. My dogs they didn’t hardly know what to think about it all Rex he looked at me like what is all this and I said I reckon I don’t know but we best be gettin out a here. And that’s what we did too but I sure wish we had stuck around to see what they was doin back there and what they was gonna do next because I don’t reckon we will ever see anything quite like it again long as we walk this earth. I been back in there since and they wasnt there no more and that made me a little scared and a little sad too I aint too proud to say. Theres things in this world we dont know nothin about and we aint got no business knowin it neither.

Flash Fiction: “Crazy on You”

“No matter how good you are, there will always be someone better.” Michael didn’t remember these words when he heard the song on the radio. He remembered another of his father’s expressions instead: the wordless joy on his face when he watched his son play the bass all those years ago. Dad would bring home CDs and tapes during the week while Michael stayed with mom across town. “I’ve got something I want you to play for me when we get home,” he would say on the golden hour drive over on Friday afternoon. “Can you play this one?”

Michael almost always could play them. He could fake his way through anything his dad wanted, jamming along to the hits of the sixties and seventies on a big amplifier he carried up and down the stairs. Lit by the warm glow of the kitchen shining into the living room of his Dad’s upstairs apartment, he felt unstoppable, ripping through Santana, Pink Floyd, Spirit, Motown, his father nearly crying from joy at the silken effortlessness of his fingers on the fretboard.

Michael was scrolling over Twitter in the Drive-Thru line at McDonald’s when the song, Heart’s “Crazy on You,” came on the radio. He had heard the song a hundred times before, but this time the bass line caught his ear. The flat, compressed warmth of the tone. The almost indiscernible space between one note and the next. The irrepressible motion beneath the melody. The gesture toward counterpoint. He was surprised this song wasn’t one of his Friday night songs all those years ago, and shocked by the feelings it brought to the surface.

This was ridiculous. Heart never made him feel anything at all. It wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t sure who was supposed to feel things when they listened to Heart, but it wasn’t him. But there it was anyway. He was unsettled and saddened, stirred to a smoldering anger in some deep register he couldn’t quite understand.

Maybe it was loss. Michael had played a few shows after high school, but it never worked out. Bands fell apart. Rent had to be paid. Moving away, going to New York or Nashville, took more than he could save. The movies about starving artists don’t tell you that it takes money to live like a pauper in a new place. By the time he learned how to take care of himself, though, it was too late.

Listening now, he could hear so much in “Crazy on You” that he would have missed then. Striving to outdo the performer, he would have added flurry upon flair–runs, ghost notes, slaps, sweeps–smirking over the fretboard, but he wouldn’t have heard the music at all. Maybe now he could do it right, he thought, because responsibility both gives and takes. The steady tug of necessity drove him away from music a few years after the living room concerts, yes, but didn’t it give him the humility to step back, to listen? It was a shame, he thought, to waste talent on the young.

But would he ever stand before an audience as joyously rapt as his dad had been so many years ago?