I left Fort Smith, Arkansas, telling everyone I couldn’t find the job I wanted here. I have a mismatched bachelor’s degree that is two parts music and one part creative writing, and I saw no one around me who had any idea what to do with that; I moved to Colorado for an internship with an orchestra, convinced myself I should do that, but not yet; I am halfway through a master’s program in Ohio, and all I know is full-time professorship sounds about as appealing and useful as a third big toe.
I’m not worried about this. I’m not focused on a straight-line career and I’m more patient with it than I thought I’d be. But I am starting to amend my first belief that I’d have to leave this place for it.
I’m sitting now at a coffee shop in Poteau, Oklahoma, with retired locals and students from the community college down the street. It’s finals week, the clouds are white and many, and when they’re in the right position it looks more overcast than it really is. From my view, it’s easy to forget how much I hate the hot, humid weather here, that the college is one bad enrollment from closing, and if I had a conversation with any of the people here they’d ask, “When are you getting a real job?”
And yet, I wish I could stay.
My favorite thing to do when I come home in the summer is drive the excessively large Toyota my mother keeps as a farm truck down Old Cameron Highway (it has a real name with numbers and everything, but no one uses it), where there are wildflowers and cattle and blue mountains in the background. This was the road we took to church every Sunday. It’s not faster than the highway that runs straight from my house to the Poteau bypass, but that’s not the point. I flick through preset radio buttons until I find a station not on commercial. My Spotify subscription is wasted here.
My second favorite thing to do is practice my accent. When I worked at a restaurant in high school, customers always asked where I was from, saying, “You don’t sound like folks around here.” My college roommate swore I had a slight accent, but she was from Illinois and denied having a midwestern accent herself (she totally did). Normally, comments on my neutral dialect felt like a compliment. After a long day and night in semi-formal for a gala, softened by exhaustion and one or two shots, the twang slipped out. A friend said, “You finally sound like you’re from the south.” I grinned.
I don’t consider myself a country mouse or city mouse. I’ve lived in both and they felt like home. But there’s a reason the story isn’t about their cousin, suburban mouse. He’s a banker with twenty baby mice kids and a house identical to his neighbors’ and if he visited his kin in the city or country, he’d never go home. He doesn’t particularly favor one over the other, but either would be it for him.
At a pub last week, I sat next to a woman at the bar. She met her friend, who had apparently been out of town for a few years. He was amazed at how different Fort Smith is now from his childhood. “Now it’s a place people come back to,” the woman next to me said.
When I was in college, it was very vogue to complain about everything Fort Smith lacked. It’s especially better if they’ve never lived anywhere else. I took it as a personal offense. Now it’s easier to find people who love it like I do, who aren’t stuck but stay willingly. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten out, yet I come back. Maybe you love your town if you can leave it.
Lamenting old cities is a worn out tune for me. I’m very ready to write about something else. Eventually it won’t be the only thing I think about.
An online journal is publishing one of my prose pieces in July. It’s about last summer when I came home, part fiction but completely true. The editors suggested I change the title to something that made more sense (I’m horrible at titles, ask every workshop I’ve been in). I only considered revisions that included Rock Island, my true hometown, simply so it could have a spot on some small map for a moment.
The table next to me is filled with people talking about bringing arts to Poteau. I can’t figure out yet what they’re planning, if it’s even concrete ideas or just idle wishes. There’s a place for it here I didn’t see before. I take back what I said years ago: I can find a life here doing what I want, it wouldn’t be settling. But not yet.