There is only one entrance to Freemont, New Jersey, and that entrance is adorned with a sign that says: “Wrong Way.” This is the result of a civil engineering mix-up nearly two decades earlier. The town engineer mistakenly conflated the signs and placed the “Wrong Way” sign at the town entrance and the “Welcome to Freemont, Population 1,100,” sign at a dangerous one-way street near the center of town.
The error was quickly brought to the attention of the town council, but a flaw in the town’s constitution required a quorum before any repairs could be ordered through the four member department of public works. Including the mayor, the board consisted of five members, three of whom were required to be present for a quorum to be reached.
Unfortunately, the mayor and one of the board members were having an affair. Rather than attend the town council meetings, they would often sneak off to a hotel a few towns over. This was their one chance each month to escape from their spouses without drawing suspicion.
A third board member was a preacher who turned to alcohol after his wife’s untimely death. He hadn’t been to a meeting in more than six months. The town’s people didn’t pay attention to local politics, so the same politicians kept getting reelected. Lacking proper bureaucratic authority, the “Wrong Way” sign remained fixed at the town entrance.
At first, a handful of townsfolk complained about the switched signs. But after a while, the citizens realized the “Wrong Way” sign kept strangers out of their town. Thereafter, the erroneously stationed “Wrong Way” sign received nearly town-wide acclimation. This acclimation far outweighed any backlash against the 275% increase in traffic accidents near city hall.
The above anecdote was relayed to me by an elderly waiter back in 2007. At the time, I was a novice journalist for a regional paper. I had been assigned to spend a day in Freemont and report on the oddity of their “Wrong Way” sign. It was a fluff piece that I wrote in just a few hours. During the ensuing years, life moved on, but for some reason, Freemont remained on my mind.
You see, the semi-insulation made the people of Freemont different from people in other towns. I’m not talking about Morlock and Eloi levels of difference, but there was something distinct about the town and its people.
There was a haunted majesty to Freemont and I couldn’t shake my desire to return. There was always this notion that I should move to Freemont and live there until I had enough material for a book. This, I thought, might be my own modest version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
By 2011, I was working in New York as a scribe for one of the big glossy news magazines. Meghan, my long-term girlfriend—not wife because we were too bohemian for that—had taken to the city immediately. She would spend her nights at the theater or getting drinks with her new friends—one of whom was even named Charlotte. To Meghan, this was her chance to finally live the type of life she had always dreamed of growing up in what she described as a stifling small town near the Atlantic Seaboard. She worked as an associate professor at Barnard and truly flourished in the big city.
Although I wasn’t married to Meghan, there were times I did feel betrothed to my job. I obtained a level of prominence in my field that I never could have anticipated. Every article I wrote had an audience of at least 100,000. I should have been the happiest writer in New York, but unfortunately, I was bitten by a curse that infects almost every journalist with misguided ambition—I wanted to write a novel.
So, with some reservations, in the spring of 2011 I set out for Freemont, New Jersey. I went alone, having failed to receive the backing of either Meghan or my employer. I was now completely alone in the world, and I didn’t care because this was my Thoreau moment. This was that personal journey every person should experience, at least once. Sure I was closer to middle age than adolescence, but this would be my “Rumspringa,” my “Vision Quest.” I packed light and left my old life behind, and as I passed the “Wrong Way” sign on the outskirts of Freemont, I saluted it.
Soon after my arrival, I realized my plan had one major flaw: the town had changed since 2007. My little story had brought attention to the town and it was no longer a secret that the “Wrong Way” sign was actually the proper entrance. The size of the town increased and Freemont was no longer the place it had been five years prior. Moreover, Freemont still appeared deep in the throes of the “Great Recession,” with many of its denizens unemployed. “Oh well,” I thought, “that just means I’ll fit right in.”
The old townsfolk were increasingly upset by the mini-invasion of tourists—even if it did prop up a shaky economy—and upon my arrival I surprised to learn that I was actually a somewhat reviled figure within the town; a social pariah of sorts. They blamed my article for ruining Freemont and perhaps they were right. It didn’t take long to realize that this time I would not be treated as a strange outsider—as I had been in 2007—but instead as an enemy combatant caught behind lines.
Everyone wanted to meet me, but only to judge for him or her-self just how much of a danger I presented. “So tell me,” the town barber said, his scarlet colored hands firmly gripping shears while cutting my hair on my third day in town, “just what do you plan to do as an encore?”
I had no friends so finding writing material was difficult. Everyone wanted to meet me, but they wouldn’t let their guard down enough for me to find any truth. All the new faces began to blur and I begin to view everyone as caricatures unfit for even the most malignant of genre novels. I began assigning even the best of my new acquaintances three word titles such as: ‘The Angry Divorcee.”
“How could I have expected my ex-husband to be faithful to me?” the Angry Divorcee said while pouring me coffee at the local diner. “When he would drive, he couldn’t even stay in the same lane of traffic for more than thirty seconds.”
Then there was “The Racist Realtor.”
“You don’t want to rent a place in that part of town,” the Racist Realtor said (with a confiding smile). “A lot of ‘landscapers’ live in that section, if you know what I mean.”
The list goes on and on. There was the “The Incompetent Doctor,” “The Mumbling Mayor,” “The Weather Reporter” (“It’s supposed to rain later tonight, did you hear?”), and who can forget “The Hated Observer,” that ‘discomfiting, reviled, holier than now piece of cosmic swamp-excrement’—(that would be me).
At the local tavern there was always more televisions than customers. I started to frequent the tavern once every week or so, just to be near people. One day, while I waited at the bar for a rum and coke, I started a conversation with a father and his twenty-something son. They were both unemployed and they both blamed their lack of prospects on their age.
“I’m just too old to find a job,” the father said. “They want people who are younger, cheaper.”
“And I’m too young to find a job,” the son said, after his father had finished speaking. “Every time I go for a job they tell me I lack experience. Well, how the hell can I get experience if nobody will give me a job?”
“Yes sir,” the father said. “There just isn’t any jobs, at least not for the old.”
“—Or the young,” the son interjected.
I stayed with them a few minutes longer, watching them bury their heads in tall mugs of amber beer. I wondered if they drank too much because they couldn’t find work or if they couldn’t find work because they drank too much.
Finally, after four weeks, there was a breakthrough of sorts. The Incompetent Doctor invited me to his house one afternoon. It was important that the doctor be friends with everyone in town, as he could never retain clients based on medical skill alone. Indeed, it was an open secret that the doctor often veered into incompetence. Like me, the doctor was in his mid-thirties and unattached.
He showed me his vintage Ford Fairlane and bragged that he had seduced almost every unattached woman in town between the ages of twenty and forty.
“God,” I replied. “I hope you know of a good treatment for herpes.”
“Why yes, there are several effective alternatives for treating herpes,” he said, his voice lacking any sarcasm or irony. “My pharmaceutical rep assures me they’ve made a great deal of progress in that area.”
Next, he showed me his basement. The basement was finished and decorated with a distinct emphasis on the “Y” chromosome. There was a Pac-Man arcade game, a pool table, a black light, and various autographed sports memorabilia.
“This,” he said. “This, is what I call my ‘man cave.’ It’s where I like to escape and unwind.”
“But don’t you live alone?”
“Fred,” he said, his tone suddenly serious.
“My name is Robert.”
“Oh, yes—Robert. That’s right.” He rubbed his eyes and his face assumed, if only for a second, a professorial quality. “Well any way, Robert,” he continued. “Can I trust you?”
“I guess so.”
“Fair enough, fair enough. I knew that I could—I tend to be an excellent judge of character.” He put his arm around my shoulder ever so gently, and continued, “You know, I’m glad we have this bond, because what I have to ask you is important.”
“Go ahead,” I said, feeling a bit uncomfortable.
“Ok, here goes, do you want to smoke some pot with me?”
“Smoke some pot?”
“Yes,” he said, his face betraying his confusion. “I’m talking about marijuana. What, is ‘pot’ like not a term where you’re from?”
“Smoke marijuana?” I said. “But you’re a doctor.”
“It’s natural, Fred.”
“Yes, Roddy, isn’t that what I said? It’s natural, which means it’s good for you. Trust me, I should know, I’m a doctor after all. Listen, this stuff comes from the Earth. It’s medicinal as all hell, and the oppressive government knows that, but they want to keep us away from it so they can continue to enslave us. But this”, he said, holding up the bag, “This is how we fight back.”
“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to be impolite. “I haven’t smoked grass since college.”
The doctor laughed. “And why would you smoke grass? It has no medicinal or psychotropic purpose; besides, who’s to say some dog didn’t just unload in it? I’m talking about marijuana.”
“I don’t really smoke marijuana,” I said, realizing I had to focus on being as literal as possible.
“Yes, see?” The doctor said. “Right there—you just proved my point. You don’t smoke marijuana and you’re in terrible physical health for somebody your age.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m in terrible physical shape.”
“Roddy, buddy, you can’t lie to me; I’m your doctor, remember? I mean, you’ve only lived here what, a month? And you’ve already been to my office three times.”
“I’ve been to your office three times because I had a splinter that got infected and it wouldn’t heal because you kept prescribing the wrong antibiotic.”
“Shhhhh,” the Incompetent Doctor said, putting his right pointer finger to his bluish lips. “Shhhhh. Hey, you know what? You want the right prescription, well, here it is. I’ve got it right here.” He again held up the sandwich bag of lacquered, greenish brown marijuana nuggets. “If there’s any justice in the world, someday I’ll be able to prescribe this directly to my patients,” he said. “You see: western medicine needs to start becoming more holistic—we need to start learning from the Chinese.”
“Do the Chinese prescribe medical marijuana?” I asked.
“Well no, of course not,” he said. “Don’t you know that country’s communist?”
I didn’t say anything for a while, but rather watched him carefully load some of the nuggets into the chamber of a dragon-shaped bong. When he had finished, he took out a white lighter and ‘fired it up.’ He coughed and the smoke escaped from his mouth and dissipated into the air like the brief afterlife of a shoddy firework show.
“Come on,” he said, shifting the wings of the dragon in my direction. “Don’t be shy, big guy. Take a monster hit and then let’s turn on my black light and talk about politics.”
Three more months passed with “nothing worth the ink to report,” as they say in my industry. Outside the good doctor I lacked an in and I was starting to become discouraged. I knew there had to be interesting stories in this town, but I worried that my 2007 newspaper article had made Freemont too much like any other small town in the northeast.
Attempts to court the Mayor’s daughter (“The Snobby Schoolteacher”) were unsuccessful, and I began to spend most of my free time at the local library, cursing the lack of selection. I found myself browbeating the local librarian (“The Illiterate Librarian”) for not stocking essential books like The Sun Also Rises or Under the Volcano.
“We’re a small town, dear,” she would always reply.
“Yes,” I responded one day, when my mood was particularly dour. “That’s true, but you fail to stock even the basics. I can barely even find any books from the Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 Novels.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do,” she said, her eyes glaring at me from behind oversized glasses. “Buy a bunch of books every time someone comes up with a list?
“You know what,” I replied, “You’re right. So long as we have six copies of every single book ever written by Mary Higgins Clark and Danielle Steel, I guess we can’t complain, right?”
“I thought you were a writer,” she said, barely looking up. “Why don’t you spend less time reading and more time writing?”
“Good point,” I said. “But I have to ask: do you even like to read?”
“Well, to be honest”, the Illiterate Librarian said, “I could take it or leave it.”
“If you don’t appreciate good literature, then why are you a librarian?” I demanded.
“For the health benefits,” she replied. “Now I’m going to have to ask you to leave, the library closes in ten minutes.”
“If the library closes in ten minutes, then wouldn’t I have to leave in ten minutes?”
“We close in ten minutes, but everyone has to leave ten minutes in advance.”
“So you close at 8:50?”
“No,” she said. “We close at 9:00, but everyone must be out by 8:50.”
When I had been in town for six months and had produced nothing more than a small scrap heap of unpromising notes, I was met by a surprise visitor. Meghan had driven down from the city.
She was the best thing I’d seen since I came to Freemont. I couldn’t believe it was her—that Meghan was actually standing there outside my apartment as though six months hadn’t intervened. We hadn’t spoken since I left, not even once.
“How’s your project coming?” she asked. “Any murders or town intrigue to be found here in Freemont?”
“There’s some talk the town is fudging the levels of arsenic found in the tap water. I think that might be something to pursue. You want to come in?”
She entered and her eyes immediately scanned my barren apartment. “Not even one decoration, huh?”
“Look,” I said, “I’m sure you haven’t come all this way to help me interior decorate, what’s going on?”
She sat on my trash-picked sofa and exhaled a smile wherein the lips didn’t quite fit together right. “First off, I want you to know that I’m not here to try and save us.”
“Well great,” I said. “Glad we got that out of the way.”
She tugged at a strand of hair for a moment. “But I am here to try and save you.”
“Save me?” I said incredulously. “Save me from what?”
“Last I checked I don’t need any saving,” I said, as bravely as I could. “But if you’re so desperate to save something, I hear the manatees aren’t doing so hot.”
“Don’t you think it’s time you left here? I’m sure you could find another magazine to take you.”
“I’m trying to do something bigger,” I said, each word cloaked in defiance. “Last I checked you only get to live once. I want to spend my life doing what I’m passionate about.”
She laughed, but it was a harsh sounding laugh; a mean laugh. “You still think you’re going to find something of note here?” she asked.
“Yeah, if I stick around long enough.”
“I mean, you really, truly believe that?”
“You’re damn right I do.”
“Well then, go on Robert, tell me, what’s happened of note thus far?”
“Well,” she said. “You’ve already been here what, eight months?”
“Fine, six. So what’s happened so far that’s worth writing about?”
“There have been some things of interest,” I replied. “It’s a small town so it might take a while, but I knew that going in. I just need to stick to the plan and be patient.”
“You want to know what happens in small towns?” she said, her voice now louder than before, not quite yelling but close. “Nothing! I know—I grew up in one. You were writing about national politics and matters of public policy. You were a top journalist writing about issues that affected millions of people. And now, what? What are you writing? What’s your novel going to be about, Mrs. Gibbons down at the church organizing a bake sale? A local scandal, maybe some adultery?
“I’m going to write a book about small town life, about everyday people. There’s a nobility to that, even if you’re now too damn high and mighty to see it. Moreover,” I said, “I’m following my dream. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Meghan stood up for a second and then slumped back into that rancid couch. “If you were still here because it’s your dream then I’d respect that, and it might have started out that way for you, but I think now you’re just hanging around because you can’t admit you’re wrong. You are a living, breathing sunk-cost fallacy.”
“No—,” I insisted. “It’s that—”
“Let me finish, please. I think you’re still here because you don’t want to admit to yourself that you messed up. But a mistake with momentum is still a mistake, Robert. I mean, what are you going to do, stick around here growing rust?”
“I’m going to stay here until I have something important to say.”
She got up again, and this time she remained standing. “Then I predict you’re going to be here for a very long time.”
“Your lack of support is unbelievable,” I said. “That’s why I never married you.”
She glanced around the apartment again, ignoring my hurtful statement. “Where are your notes anyway?”
“Show me what you have so far. There must at least be some notes, maybe even a first draft.”
“I do have notes,” I said. “But how are they any of your business?”
“Fine, forget it,” she said. “You know what? Coming here was such a mistake.”
I couldn’t disagree so I didn’t try and stop her from leaving. Instead, as she closed the door I screamed after her, “Have fun being a hotshot in the big city!” I thought it might make me feel better, but of course it didn’t.
After Meghan was gone, I sat Indian-style on the uncarpeted floor. I thought about my old job and my life in the city. I thought about Meghan and our relationship. In the final analysis, it was just another thing I had given up and could never bring back.
Then I thought about the notes to my “Great American Story,” and how I was too proud to admit to Meghan that I’d burnt them three days prior. My savings were now nearly gone and I wondered if the Freemont Gazette could use a new staff writer. “A ‘mistake with momentum,’ I thought, remembering Meghan’s words. “Maybe that’s all I am, just like that damn sign.”
Then I heard another knock at my door. “Meghan,” I said aloud. But when I got to the door, it was just a fiftyish man that I faintly recognized.
“Are you Robert?” he asked. “The writer?”
“My name’s Joe. I work down at the mill.”
Joe glanced around nervously. “Can I come in?” He asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”
Joe stepped into my apartment and I grabbed us both a beer. “So what’s going on?” I asked.
“I’ve got a story I think you’d like to hear,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s going to blow your mind.”
My whole body seemed to quiver with excitement. Could this be the big break I’d been waiting for? I took a long swig from my beer. “Well, go on,” I said. “What is it?”
“You’ll never believe this,” he said. “It involves Dr. Jenson.”
“What about Dr. Jenson?” I asked.
“Well, apparently,” Joe said, “Dr. Jenson uses drugs. Marijuana.”
All the excitement in my body drained away. I half-listened until Joe finished his story, but by then, I had already reduced Joe to a three-word caricature. And just a few minutes later, “the Shoddy Informant” left as suddenly as he arrived.
Carl Taylor is a thirty-something father, lapsed lawyer, and Euro board game enthusiast residing in the (somewhat) underrated State of New Jersey. Carl received an undergraduate degree in English Literature and remains a voracious reader who writes in his free time. Carl has section-hiked hundreds of miles of the Appalachian Trail and his writing is often inspired by nature.
© 2020, Carl Taylor