by Alison O’Connor

When the trees give way, the opening of the town is littered with pine-shavings. The exposed gravel marking the end of the road is dry and appears shriveled. There is a sturdy wooden sign at the right side of the road’s end that offers a straightforward welcome in its charcoal cursive lettering, the bottom of which is adorned with a single faded evergreen design. However, there are no trees in sight. The ground, from this point forth, becomes thin and smooth asphalt, and cracked strips of sidewalk lining the rows of houses and the clustered buildings directly in the center of the town. The rest of the ground beyond the pavement and walkways is vast, sprawling grass peppered with dandelions and clovers, though these always look dehydrated and aching, surrendering to the looming shadows of the homes. The population of Slaidtown is not advertised or written down anywhere, since it is usually around a thousand, depending on the years. Residents stopped counting a few decades back. 

The housing in Slaidtown is very visibly and symmetrically divided between the main area’s miniscule cluster of buildings and shops, and which are identical one-story off-white rows of homes with white shingled roofs with scrawny weathervanes. Those which claim some kind of residence in the main area of town, that is, those who do not reside already in the identical housing units, use the long-abandoned storefronts as tenements, or both tenements and bars. The town is otherwise comprised of one grand furniture store, boasting handcrafted furniture made by Madam Crawford and her heirs, a clothing store/alterations service run by Sally, the town’s seamstress extraordinaire and her mentees and a consignment shop owned and operated by the Rowntrees. There are nine different bars in Slaidtown, run by the nine most apt bartenders within the towns population, as most of the elder townspeople have had bartending experience or prior knowledge of the trade. These bars are frequented like clockwork by most Slaidtown workers, throughout a typical day on breaks from their jobs at the steel mill, as steel is Slaidtown’s main export and the occupation of everyone that is not a child, sick or pregnant. Exceptions to this unspoken rule, other positions of employment offered to a select few, are store-owners, bartenders, schoolteachers, overseers and truckers. The steel workers shuffle between the nine bars and gingerly nurse their beers and ales, shifting to and from the steel plant which rises above the town like a solemn curtain.

The steel mill looms over Slaidtown in an ominous hulking mass, a towering factory building with several adjoining structures in faded brown brick and with fogged up tinted windows. The roof is sheathed in bumpy silver metal. There are smokestacks protruding from all sides from the building, which cloud the town in a constant mist, which adds to the grayness of the environment and the consistent state of rust and shadow of the area. The assembly line stretches in a stern row across the middle of the mill, linking all of the components of the structure together, while carbon ovens line the main segment of buildings, two strong blast furnaces residing in one of the larger segments of the mill. The large steel-making furnace rests at the very end of the assembly line. Four massive flame-resistant trucks move in and out of Slaidtown to amasss and bring in large quantities of iron ore and coal to the factory. The waste products from the mill are carried out by one extremely large garbage truck and discreetly distributed to various recycling plants across the country. The steel workers discreetly arrive at the mill every day at five in the morning, softly sip their first beers at ten in the morning, and proceed working and bar-breaking until nine PM when the doors are last shut for the day.

The profits that come into the town are only really ever spent on liquor or on snack food, since there are no book or video stores, or libraries for that matter. Money also goes towards several basic repairs of housing, mill maintenance and bar stock, but the primary means of spending of the townspeople is on food, and for its arrival. Music, or any monetary means of obtaining it, is not of question, as it has proved to be too distractive and too brash the few times it was introduced. No radio has been allowed in Slaidtown since. The sole source of food is at the general store, a long-abandoned warehouse filled with vast troves of junk food and snack-cake products and freeze-dried fruit and meat. The general store remains thirty-two degrees, and residents always wear down coats when entering and shopping for food. There are two enormous trucks that travel to and from Slaidtown delivering goods once every six months to the store and to each of the nine bars, providing the food and drink, the orders placed by the residents via two long lists for the respective truck drivers to take heed of. The water supply of Slaidtown is of a consistent quality, though it looks lightly rusted every other day, and the townspeople usually prefer beer as beverage of choice, so no real objection is raised to the purification of the water. There is always a steady amount of water-bottles kept in the store to begin with, which also keeps any complaints silenced. The general store is as of lately run and overseen by Maxwell, a retired business executive of questionable practice of late middle age, who lives in the back-office of the store and rarely emerges unless there is an emergency, which there rarely ever is.

The children of Slaidtown, once they are of school age, attend the Slaidtown schoolhouse, which exists in the only mansion that was ever built in the town, a McMansion that was planned as a model for fancier housing, but soon scrapped, as the standard housing unit was much easier and cheaper to manufacture, and much less nosily built. The schoolhouse instructs children in grades K-12, and there are twelve assigned teachers in all, one per grade. The school abides by the standard schooling curriculum, while also training the children for work in the steel mill when they are of job age, unless they are decidedly better fit for work as bartenders, post office operators or overseers of the town’s stock and commerce. Driver’s education is not necessary, unless students sign up for training as truck drivers, and even this is selective.

The people of Slaidtown keep to themselves, and keep their gazes fixated on books, dated magazines, bottles, cans, glasses, food-wrappers and their own shadows, which loom across rooms, the asphalt and the land in languid fashion. There are no cars or bikes, no transportation apart from the four trucks, which enables residents to look anywhere but in front, ahead or at one another. Agreements, promises and exchanges take place in momentary stares or nods or shakes of the head. They get together, mingle, copulate, though none of these moments of interaction last, no attachments form, and no exclamation of any sort is breathed between anyone or any self. There are no arguments or fights, no quarrels, though one stern, cold eye signifies a scathing wrath, one nudge against another is tantamount to a slap in the face. Contact of any kind is extremely intimate, and intimacy in Slaidtown is very rare. There are no family units, as one parent raises one or two children in one home. The only married couples are elderly, as the prospect of matrimony in Slaidtown is only appealing once one is too old to live alone. All contact is business, iron-tight and done in complete silence apart from uneasy breathing. Everyone’s breath smells like menthol and nicotine, and the air feels stiff like drying clay, a sensation which is acknowledged and tolerated, inhaled as necessary ash.

The black shadows stretching between homes and buildings across the sidewalks, pavement and fields shift with the day, toward sundown amassing into hulking blobs that swallow people whole as they travel lightly from one unit to the next, toward nightfall when everyone ends up behind a door and remains inside until early morning, the half-dark interiors a darkness that can be controlled and monitored at will. The few lamplights that remain turned on cast more benign shadows across furniture and bodies than the utter blackness of the outside dusk, reflections that speak less volumes and condescension on people. The familiar shadows of home betray less than those of the structures outside, those give away more of residents’ past and prior identities than they would care to admit. Indoors sustain the control that keeps Slaidtown sane.

The mayor of Slaidtown is lately a fifty year old woman named Midge, the former heiress daughter of an oil tycoon, a skilled manipulator and shrewd bargainer who moved to the town just ten years ago. Her voice has been subdued by years of exhaustingly heavy smoking and decibel bursting shouts of profanities. She dresses in fitted, tucked in tee shirts and high-waisted baggy jeans. Her face is wrinkled, and she always wears dark purple lipstick and thickly penciled eyebrows. Her eyes are gray and sharp, her hands are like talons and her nostrils always flare. It should also be noted that she is one of the nine bartenders, and makes a point of being seen by everyone. She moves from building to building, house to house, to make sure all is in order. No one dares cross her, and no one has ever thought to do so. She is reasonable, she is fair, and there are no quarrels to be had. She, like every other aspect of Slaidtown, and every mayor before and that will come after her, is accepted in one silent, solemn glance before life in Slaidtown resumes. 

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