by Garrett Zecker
One traffic light blinks at the center of Orange, Massachusetts. I drive through the factory town after our writers group meeting. The tiny downtown echoes a history shared by all post-industrial cities in twenty-first century middle America. The environment changed many decades ago from a center of industry producing Minute Tapioca, New Home Sewing Machines, and Grout automobiles to a graveyard of beautiful, abandoned brick buildings.
This particular drive presents something quite different than the many other times I’ve passed through. I coasted over the bridge to the soft roar of the dam and barely notice some strange alterations that tip everything at a slight angle. The signage and windows have been refurbished. The Orange Pizza Factory became Castle Rock Pizza Factory. Pastel Buicks and Oldsmobiles from fifty years ago line the streets and sparkle in the lamplight. Everything is eerily different, as if the veil of today has been lifted to reveal a lost decade when the city's motto of 'the friendly town' was first coined.
I shift into a different town a half-century into the past. While everyone slept, crews dressed the city for a new television adaptation of Stephen King's fictitious New England town. The cast, aside from the principal roles, came from a casting call that pulled from the surrounding communities. The town hall and police station sport new facades showcasing the name of their downeast counterpart. My neighbors stroll the streets, simultaneously themselves and their doppelgängers, overlapped in dizzying double-exposure.
I remember the twelve-year-old me: twenty years ago and a hundred miles east. I’d venture up the stairs of the Tufts Library after exhausting their fiction collection in the basement children's section. I needed a new fix. I wandered the adult stacks. Approaching the shelf bearing Stephen King's recognizable name felt like an obligatory rite of passage. I chose the skinniest volume on the shelf, Carrie. I felt like I was getting away with something lurid as the librarian charged the book out to me, the metal 'Ka-Chunk' of the Gaylord Model C Book Charger punching my newly christened adult library card like a weapon. I read it in a night. I ignored my classes the next day in school, scribbling stories through my lessons. Stories of cruel parents, the private bloody mysteries of the girls in my class, and of the potential of delicious justice punishing every last classmate that ignored or treated me with even the tiniest of cruelties. In the ensuing years, like all eager young readers, I enthusiastically buckled down with the Torrances, adventured with Deschaine, stayed up with Ralph Roberts, and found justice with John Coffey and Andy Dufresne.
Driving through Orange's fully-immersive space built from the imagination of my adolescent literary idol is as magical as building my own fictional worlds. Both places are several places at once. The film crew of my mind overlays my familiar environments with an onion skin of words, just as those people I cherish are re-cast as bloodthirsty queens, cynical husbands, or expatriated poets in search of fame.
The realities we build in fiction are simply collages of our milieu, painted over with language and modified decorum. We only recognize the sets and the players slightly askew from the authentic on our disorienting dusk drive through a town just a few miles from our own. I find it hard to delineate the difference between the magic King wove in my young mind and the magic I feel driving through Castle Rock today. Both invoke a version of reality that speaks to me in time, place, and character, in a place that looks and feels a lot like home.
The beauty of the work we do, as writers, lies in the permanence of the version of our reality that we build. The world continues on its unpredictable path, but our written constructions exist at the same time. We close one eye to revisit the concrete version of a world that never existed.
By mid-winter, the crews and the signage will be gone. The people of Orange go back to slogging away at their lives with rugged determination. The classic cars return to the lot at Wilson's Customs the next town over. Yet friends will still pause and chat while managing a fat, overflowing ice cream cone from Miller's. The music and laughter from R.C.'s pub will still dance out the door and across the bridge. A man will drag on a cigarette and cough while another casts a line from his fishing pole. Maybe the patriotic bunting and cosmetic attention will last, and Castle Rock's shine will linger. But what I am certain will remain is the memory of the truth and magic that exists when we visit our fictions and meet this altered version of our neighbors and ourselves.
Garrett Zecker is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.
Photo by Diane Kane.