Mullenville, Population 82
a short story
It’s been three years since we’ve had a new one here in Mullenville, and the last one only stayed six months. I ran my entire mayoral campaign on it, promising to attract not just one, but a mating pair in my first year on the job. That promise is part of why I won — and all of why I haven’t slept a full night since.
Elena is the female and Thatcher is the male. They spot me in the airport and pause in the exit corridor, ignoring those who bump into them from behind. I’m somewhat worried they’ll be injured by a luggage cart, but they don’t seem to notice the disturbance that they’re causing. Instead, Elena throws her arms around Thatcher’s neck and kisses him, and the corridor erupts with applause. Thatcher squeezes Elena’s buttock through her floral skirt, and they walk toward me holding hands. In my nervousness, I dip into a modest bow. Thatcher holds his gaze above me, but Elena nods as she meets my eyes. They’ve arrived.
Last week, my staff organized a livestream of their wedding and projected it onto a giant sheet we draped across the front of our modest city hall. Their ceremony was quick and secular, followed by a reception held in a barn west of Chicago, their old city. Throughout the livestream, I couldn’t stop watching Elena. She wore an antique wedding dress with long sleeves and a short train, the satin pinching at her waist, hinting at her thickening. Her dark hair was twisted back from her face, smooth and delicate as an eggshell. I watched her dance with Thatcher, her father, and many others. Halfway through, I whispered at the screen, begging her to sit down and relax her feet. It hurt me some that she didn’t hear me.
In the airport parking lot, Thatcher and Elena wait for me to open the backseat doors of my mud-splattered car. Thatcher hands me his shoulder bag, and I shake off my indignation as I put it in the trunk. My secretary, Madison, the youngest of my staff, warned me that they might seem impolite. “City ways are different from yours,” she’d said, but I just scoffed back at her. Madison came to Mullenville on a modest graduation package. A single woman is worth a third of what we give to proven mothers.
I pull out from the airport and drive through the remnants of Stone Creek. In the mirror I watch as Elena presses her face against the glass to take in rotting porches and shattered red-brick chimneys. The yards went to seed a long time ago, and wild grass and weeds tower over many of the small, one-story homes. There’s a highway I could have taken instead, but I want them to see Stone Creek, to be sobered by it.
“When did they go under?” Elena’s voice is high and wispy. She feels half present to me, transient, like a leaf that flittered in on a breeze but will catch the next one right back out the window. I click on the child lock to keep her in.
“Five years since the official bankruptcy, but they’d been expecting the end for much longer,” I say. “They gave up too easy. They never offered a single package, not even a graduation one.” At the Stone Creek city limit, I speed up past a fraying billboard. Thanks for visiting! Come again soon!
“It doesn’t look like they had much to offer anyway.” Thatcher scrolls through his phone as Elena turns her neck to watch the ruins disappear behind us. These sorts of comments are why the city council hiccupped over Thatcher’s application; he strikes some as too transactional in his negotiations with us. But despite our doubts, I advocated for him fiercely because I wanted her. Them. All three of them. I watch in the mirror as Thatcher absently strokes Elena’s belly.
I pull off the county road and enter downtown Mullenville. We drive under a big banner over Main Street: “WELCOME THATCHER & ELENA!” People sit along the curb in lawn chairs, shaking flags and streamers at us. I honk and Elena tries to roll down her window to wave but can’t. Through the glass, she blows kisses at old women who sit primly under afghans in their wheelchairs. A fire truck is parked at the intersection of Main and First, and its lights spin as the siren barks.
Their formal introduction party will be later this week. There will be a parade, speeches, and a BBQ at town hall. They will unwrap our brand-new population sign: 82 will become 84, and in a few months more, 85.
I won the mayoral race handily because I leaked a video of the last mayor interviewing a prospect at the Speakeasy, the only bar we have left. Our mayor told the prospect that she’d be better off in Toomsuba, even though we could offer her a thousand dollars more.
On election night, I went to the Speakeasy to celebrate with my staff. The unseated mayor, Rick, sat at the bar four gins deep. “You think you can control them, but you can’t,” he said to me. “They’re like pet tigers, the type of kids who take packages from desperate places. Let them off the chain, and they’ll bite.
The bartender grew up with both of us and picked up the phone to call Rick’s wife, but I waved him off. “Let him be,” I said to the bartender, which I thought was big of me. “Let him stay.”
When the baby comes, we’ll send a press release to the newspaper in Toomsuba.
I turn into the driveway of the arts-and-crafts bungalow we’d built especially for them. Four bedrooms, two full baths, an attached garage, and a shed big enough for a third vehicle someday. Neighbors on porches dot the block, and many raise their beer cans as we get out of the car. Everyone is under strict orders not to approach them today, not to overwhelm them, not yet.
Madison stands up from their porch swing. She hands Thatcher the keys to the house and gives him a smile I can’t read. The two of them know each other, somehow, from Chicago. We give bonuses to those who successfully recruit others, but Madison refused to take what she called “my pennies” when I offered her the reward. I thought that was big of her.
Thatcher’s hand stays wrapped with Madison’s longer than I think it should. He follows her inside the house, but Elena lingers on the porch and waves at the neighbors who are still watching her. My chest aches with hope that she will be a kindly queen to our elderly beehive. I imagine her letting our women crochet misshapen hats for her baby and indulging our men as we fuss over her lawn mower, her spark plugs, her washing machine. I imagine her sitting on her front porch every night, rocking her baby as we fetch her bottles and toys and snacks from the kitchen. I imagine myself as a regular on her porch, that together she and I and the baby will watch the daylight fade again and again over the woods beyond the distant remnants of Stone Creek.
“It’s not right to keep dying things alive, Henry. This town is like a possum that’s been hit by a truck. You can’t fix it, and nobody’s asking you to.” I hear the memory of Rick in my ear, and I bat him away like the mosquito he is.
“You let us fall to critically endangered,” I said to him on election night. “Someone has to do something.” I rewrote our packages to offer cash upfront, instead of making them wait the customary two full years. Some of the council members think it’s odd that a software programmer like Thatcher would want to start an organic herb farm in the countryside, but I’ve read all the studies about how erratic they — the young city people — can be these days.
I approach Elena at the banister. She puts her back against it and smiles at me with her lips closed. She always smiles that way; her front teeth overlap a bit, and she’s conscious of it. “This place reminds me of my mother’s hometown.” Her face is dewy with our humidity, and she slides a light sweater off her shoulder. I don’t like that she's reminded of her parents. I hitch my foot over the bottom rung of the railing. “We’re so excited about you, Elena.”
She extends a soft arm toward the street, and her polished nails point at an abandoned house we’ll soon demolish. The frame leans precariously to the right, but the wraparound porch still stands straight, resolute and ready for the visitors that no longer come. I remind myself to tell the boys to take out the porch first, when the time comes.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it, Henry. Like driftwood on a beach, that sort of thing.”
I shake my head. “It’s an eyesore. An embarrassment. Like much of this town. But you’ll help us change that.”
She digs a fingernail into the fresh paint of the railing. It bothers me to see her chip it. “Why do you stay in Mullenville, Henry? Why not follow your son into the city? Thatcher really admires him, you know. Your son is such an amazing architect. We studied him in school.”
I don’t wince at the mention of my son, not anymore. I’m neither proud nor ashamed to have raised a man who does not want the things I could have given him, a man who would rather build up a city for strangers instead of salvaging his own.
I remember my son as a boy, skidding his bike off the street onto a thin trail of dirt that weaved deep into the woods. Back then I thought nothing of it that I wouldn’t see him again for hours; I told myself he needed time alone at that little stream, to learn to fish and to trap small animals, like all boys must do. I told myself he needed that stream, that space, to grow. I believed it then and I still do, though I also know now that I should have gone with him at least once, maybe twice, and then twice again more.
Instead, I spent those days, or most of them, at the Speakeasy adding fresh layers of grime to well-worn friendships. I thought someday my young son would turn old and I’d meet him there, but he hasn’t called in a long time. His little stream in the woods dried up years ago.
“I’d just be another geezer shuffling through the park, feeding sky rats or whatever old people do in cities,” I say to Elena on her porch. “In Mullenville, I’m the mayor. That matters, or at least it does to me.”
Elena looks again at the dilapidated house. “What do you want from us, Henry? What do you really think we can do for you? For this town?”
I wrap my palms around the railing to keep myself from reaching for her bare shoulder. In the morning, I’ll come back with a sledgehammer and start busting up the porch across the street myself.
I already know that Thatcher will rip us off, that he’ll take our money and our car, and that Madison won’t be far behind him. The day he disappears, I’ll steel myself for a rough night at the Speakeasy, where neighbor after neighbor will pour thick yellow beers straight into my lap. When it’s over, Rick will buy the two of us a bottle of gin, and we’ll spend the night talking about high school, the good old days, the many years we played together for the same team.
And when the baby finally comes, I’ll tell myself he isn’t Thatcher’s, because it won’t seem possible that such a good and gentle little boy could belong to such an arrogant and selfish man.
Elena shouldn’t have to look at it, at the ruined house across the street. I don’t want her to look at it, and I direct her gaze away from it and back toward me.
“I’m not asking you for anything. I’m just hoping that you’ll stay.