Matthew Licht

Welcome to Felchville

A small party was on its way to a wedding in the country. Their budget rental car would’ve been more comfortable with one less person in it. Pete, in order to deserve his spot in back, kept up a conversation. A Hollywood hopeful, he lived in a Limbo of awaited phone calls, letters, any hint that the time had come to get out of New York and head west.

The Big City, Pete said, was finished. The theater was dead, newspapers were written by lickspittles, magazines were staffed by corrupt cliques, publishing companies were cabals run by Freemasons. There are a million Petes in town. He’d kept his sense of humor about it, though.

People had once said, you ought to be a professional comedian. Pete had worn out his welcome at the improv clubs. He wasn’t on-stage funny. His laughs were on-paper.

His embryonic screenplay was a box-office smashterpiece in search of a big idea. The evil twin thing, he said. The Great White Shark with the disco soundtrack: there’s a little of him in everyone.

Wade Hawkes was at the wheel. His name was perfect for a director of Westerns, or a sheriff in a movie. Aside from being overweight, he looked the part. He taught film history at Columbia University.

Wade’s wife Mona rode shotgun. She kept her eyes on the road. Wade didn’t drive much, and was therefore clumsily aggressive. She was nervous.

Pete had wedged himself between Allie and me in back.

Allie and I had been together a long time. She might’ve wanted to make it legal, at some point.

Edgar Whittemore, the man about to be married Upstate, was a lawyer.

Car dealerships and fast food oases gave way to farms, pastures, forests. There wasn’t much traffic.

“Can we please get off the highway?” Allie said. “I’d like to see some trees.”

Gentlemanly Sheriff Wade swerved into the next exit, and the world outside the car went green, red, orange, brown and yellow.

Allie, an interior designer, was delighted when we drove past a Charles Addams-style mansion that’d recently been featured in one of her favorite magazines. “Ooh look! That’s Sere Pines, the Suckley estate.”

“Suck-lee,” Pete drawled.

“Miss Suckley’s like a modern Miss Havisham,” Allie said, “in that she’s not modern at all. She’s a kooky old Yankee blueblood who keeps the family spread exactly the way it was in her Great-grandpa’s day. Or maybe she let it rot away to honor his memory, or because she’s got no money left. The Suckleys were the last of the New England loyalists.”

“Omigod, look!” Pete nearly leapt into the front seat. “There’s a sign up ahead! We’re coming into Felchville.”

He was right: the blue sign read, Felchville. I’d never heard of the place. Maybe it didn’t exist before we showed up.

Wade and Mona were nonplussed. Felch wasn’t part of their prenuptial agreement, or their vocabularies.

Allie groaned. Among the accumulations in our cramped Times Square studio apartment is a vast collection of Underground Comix that will go to the Public Library when I die.

“Slow down, Wade.” Pete grabbed the driver’s soft shoulder. “I don’t want to miss any details.”

Felchville seemed an ordinary drive-by burg, with the usual shops, restaurants, parking lots and houses. Normally dressed normal-looking people wandered about their lives on clean, uncrumbled sidewalks.

“Ooh look!” Allie whisper-shouted, to humor Pete. “They all got brown crusts around their mouths.”

“They’re foaming,” Pete said.

Felcher was a name Allie and I had seen on grave markers in Queens, and out in New Jersey. Cemetery expeditions were something to do on weekends, after we’d checked out the 6th Avenue flea market. There must be a million couples like us in town.

A man in a brown derby hat stopped to admire the local smoke-shop window, or perhaps his reflection in it. He looked repressed.

“Felch-a-holics Anonymous member,” Pete said, with the accent on member.

“Why’re they flying Canadian flags all over the place?” Allie said. “Did we mass-sleepwalk through the part where the Mounties waved us across the border?”

“November 12th is Canada Appreciation Day, here in Felchville,” Pete said. “They celebrate by felching each other unconscious.” He provided slurpy sound-effects.

Felchville had a Public Library. The red maple leaf banner on the thick pole that protruded from its facade flapped with civic pride.

There was a long line at the Felchville Cafe’s takeout window.

“Find a spot, please,” Pete said. “I need to investigate deeper.”

Wade parked beautifully. He could’ve been a Formula One parking lot attendant if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the city.

We got out. Mona stretched her arms in a wingèd victory pose and was transformed into Miss Felchville, for a moment.

Allie, my girlfriend, leaned against the rental car’s hood, and cleaned her glasses on her shirt for a clearer look around.

The cafè had a horseshoe lunch-counter. Pete lingered in the entryway by the cash register.

“Milky Ways are called Creemy Treets here in Felchville,” he said, and held up a candy bar in an advertising snapshot pose. He wasn’t joking: the wrapper bore the customary blue-white starburst, but the verbiage was different.

“Think I’ll grab a few to slurp later,” he said. “Brown on the outside, buttery on the inside.”

The odd candy bars he plonked down added a color-note to the deep brown padded rubber strip that ran down the lunch counter’s center. To keep porcelain from sliding around in a storm, perhaps.

The waitress was dressed like a nurse. She seemed to have a slight mustache problem, but closer inspection showed foamy brown crusts at the corners of her mouth, like the anus of a dog who hadn’t wiped too well. Pete elbowed my ribs.

The waitress’ nameplate read “Felicia” below a red maple leaf.

Pete didn’t miss a beat. “What’s the Brown Plate Special today, Felcha?”

Waitress Felicia didn’t bat an eyelash, or lick away foam. “Cream of meatloaf.”

“Oh, delicious. Who’ve you got cooking in there?” Pete head-gestured towards the brown

padded swinging double-doors to the kitchen. There was a round brass push-plate between them.

“Huh? Oh, it’s old Homer Suckley, same as always on Thursdays.” She beat a ballpoint tattoo on her orders notepad. “So, how many Brown Plates? Awful good. Had some myself, for breakfast.”

“Just plain oatmeal for me,” Mona said.

Pete wouldn’t let go of anything that smacked of Felchville-abilia. “Suckley, huh? Is he related to the Suckley Mansion, visible from the road on the way up from the city? What’s that place called, Allie?”

“You mean Sere Pines,” Allie said.

“Looks like the haunted house in a baroque carnival. Inhabited by some crazy old rich lady…”

“That’s a different Suckley family,” Felicia the waitress said, impatiently. “Suckley’s a fairly common last name in these parts.”

Wade broke in. “I’d like a Western omelette, please.” The waitress looked at Allie.

“Just a cup of coffee for me,” she said.

“Would you like cream in it?”

“No thanks. Black.”

“You mean, brown,” Felicia the Felchville waitress said. “The coffee’s brown, here.”

“Oh. In that case, I’ll have a glass of orange juice. Orange is just orange here, right?”

“Of course it is.”

“You got fresh-squeezed?”

“You mean, fresh-sucked. We got a machine that sucks out the juice.”

“How ‘bout we cancel our orders and get outta here?” Allie said.

“Not so fast.” Pete made it sound as though Felchville were a byzantine practical joke, and

that everyone was in on it except Allie. “I’ll simply die if I don’t try a Felchville Brown Plate Special.”

“Me too,” I said. “And may I please have some maple syrup with it?”

“Comes with maple syrup,” Felicia the waitress said.

“Naturally.” Pete was eyeing an item of diner hardware placed further down the brown rubberized counter: a clear plastic doughnut display unit with a clear plastic bell-cover. He went to inspect the thing. He waved. “You gotta check this out.”

Doughnuts at the Felchville Cafe had creases down the middle. Their holes brimmed over with pale chocolate froth.

“Oh my God,” Pete gasped. “They look scrumptious.”

The calligraphy on a folded slip of paper said, “Home-Made by Mrs. Annie Hainell. Help Your Self. 35¢.” Adjacent to the pastry holder was a short stack of paper plates, and sanitary tongs. Pete helped himself to a felch doughnut, dropped a quarter-and-dime into the paper cup provided.

The wall above the doughnut area held framed sepia-toned portraits of W. C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Charles Laughton, President Herbert Hoover. A treacly smell hung in the air. It might’ve been that the Public Library’s groundskeeper was fertilizing the lawn in front of the Canadian Fascist-style building.

“Let’s begone.” I said, and dropped a $20 bill on the counter. “Screw the food. I got a feeling we shouldn’t eat anything here anyway.”

Pete was already frenching the hole of his doughnut. “What the hell are you talking about? We can’t leave. This place is a dream. The screenplay practically writes itself.”

Mona and Allie stood up. Their spinning stools clanked and whirred. Wade, who looked hungry and might otherwise have been persuaded to stay, checked his watch. “Let’s ride. Ceremony’s supposed to start at three, and we’ve still got fifty or sixty miles to go. We don’t want be late, it’s rude.”

“Screw the wedding,” Pete said. Chocolate foamed at the corners of his mouth. He hadn’t shaved. “In fact, fuck all primitive superstitious meaningless rituals.”

“The deal was, we’d stop and just to have a look around,” Allie said. “We’ve seen enough, for my tastes. Curiosity satisfied.”

“Felchville, adiós.” Mona led the procession out of the cafè. Wade jingled car-keys.

“C’mon Pete,” I said. “We can stop here again on the way back to town. We’ll book a suite at the Felchville Hotel.”

“You’re just humoring me,” he said, and it was true. We’d planned to turn the rest of the wedding weekend into a cultural excursion: Saratoga Springs, Fort Ticonderoga, the Mohawk Trail. “Just when I’ve found the place. You don’t want me to write a hit screenplay. You want me to fail. You want me to remain a loser, eternally stuck in New York. Don’t you even want to find out what Cream of Meatloaf tastes like?”

“Not really.”

Felicia the waitress sklurched through the swinging doors with armfuls of brown porcelain. Steam rose from the bowls.

“Bon appetit,” Allie said.

Pete wolfed the rest of his doughnut and sat down resolutely at the counter. “So long, suckers. You can come visit me in Hollywood when my work here is finished.”

Out on the street, a Felchville cop in a brown uniform was writing out a ticket. Wade, distracted by Felchville scenery, hadn’t noticed the Sanitation Dept Only sign.

“Sorry ‘bout that, Officer,” Wade said.

The cop said, “There’s a special cell for scofflaws in the Felchville Jail.”

Or something like that.

Wade took the summons. He drove away slowly.

We arrived at the wedding late, and missed the part of the ceremony where they say they do and they will.

At the banquet hall, the bride asked where Pete was. She was one of his ex-girlfriends, I

guess I forgot to mention that. Actually, she was one of my ex-girlfriends too. From high school.

“He’s in Heaven,” I said.

Her eyes bulged in disbelief. She would’ve burst out crying, but didn’t want to wreck her makeup.

I steadied her. “Sorry. I meant, he’s in a good place.” “Hollywood?”

“Yeah, Hollywood. He finally figured out how to get there.”

“I knew he’d be OK, in the end,” she said. “I always thought he’d make it, eventually. I just didn’t have enough patience to wait around for his dreams to come true.”

She disappeared back into the wedding whirl to greet her other guests and dance with her new husband. I asked Allie to dance with me, and she said yes.

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