A village once slept in the middle of nowhere, in the vast interior of the North America. The village was not on the bank of creek or the shore of a lake. It did not straddle a railroad track, a paved route to somewhere, or even a legal right of way. Surrounded by woods, it lacked a sawmill, a clay pit, a coal mine, or an agricultural storage facility.
The village did have a country store and three houses like those in the tale of the three little pigs—one built of straw, one stick-frame, and one of built of brick with a chimney. A farm tractor or a battered old Ford passed through no more than once a day on the dirt road. The only inhabitant to be seen was a hound dog lying on the porch of the store.
People called the village Exped. Maybe the name was short for something like “expedition” or “expedient.” Maybe the person who owned the country store, a whimsical man with a long gray beard who walked back roads in his youth as a peddler, named the place for himself, and it lost the final syllable. When he expired, the store closed and stood deserted. The straw house blew away in the wind, the stick-frame leaned, and the brick crumbled. The hound dog ran off, and weeds grew in the dirt road.
Exped leaped into the headlights in the 1950s, when civil engineers with blunt felt markers chose it as the crossing of two major highways. Overnight, the need for gas, food and lodging—the holy triad of modern transportation—spawned a cluster of service stations, truck stops, greasy spoons, cheap motels, convenience stores, and a souvenir stand for baskets.
A few decades on, after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, executives of a major domestic airline stared at a roadmap of North America. Clean-shaven men in white shirts and dark wool suits had never laid eyes on the shabby place, or checked the prevailing weather patterns. They decided Exped was the ideal hub for the flights they planned to inaugurate. There was no earthly reason to fly there, nothing to do and no one to visit, but it happened to lie equidistant from the cities they already served or wished to dominate. The airline was in league with truck shipping companies and the United States Postal Service. They saw the little crossroad in the same big picture.
This corporate cabal of movers and shakers bought land from poor and uninformed farmers, people who read the Bible but neglected to follow the news. The men in suits spoke quietly to local authorities, and they made discreet payments. Out of thin air, they created an airport.
Success was mad and immediate. The airport took off, as it were. The need for maintenance specialists, service technicians, traffic controllers, housekeeping staff, warehouse personnel, clerks, guards, and a host of workers, permanent and temporary, quickly outstripped the supply on the ground. A city sprang up with no spine or skeleton, no civic soul or municipal heart. The disorganized builders gave no thought to how thousands of people would live in Exped. They had no intention of living there themselves.
The result is a hodge-podge, a muddle and a mess, a kind of encampment or instant slum that oozes around the airport and the highways. A maze of back roads and rutted gravel lanes, Exped defies any notion of urbanity. All buildings are jerrybuilt, and the few attempts at public works like a park or a school are afterthoughts. Commerce takes place in dingy malls, roadside shacks, and nationally recognized fast-food chains with inadequate parking and barren median strips. Drainage and utility lines are absent. To say that Exped is a no-frills town is an understatement. That it functions at all comes as a shock.
What it lacks in charm, Exped makes up for in hustle and bustle, the feverish thrill of movement for its own sake. The town exhibits a constant flow of passengers and packages, of human lives and freight. It is not a place to linger so much as a point in transit. Before it existed, Walt Whitman sang in his Song of the Open Road:
Allons! We must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot
remain here . . .
Demand for overnight delivery means the airport and support facilities are active night and day. Exped is awake twenty-four hours, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. If the city never sleeps, its inhabitants doze in fits and starts, as jumbo jets roar over their heads, and traffic rushes and crawls around them.
The lounge-like style of this city of trailers, motels, bars, and furnished rooms for rent by the week gave birth to a flair for entertainment. Live music is ubiquitous. A balladeer croons with guitar and harmonica on a busy street corner, and a band jives in a dive that offers drinks. Stand-up comics take the microphone on weeknights, and troupes of young actors improvise revues with props they pick from pockets in the audience or pluck from the tray of a passing server. Like a discount retailer, Exped has a soundtrack, the tunes and refrains of folks on the move. They would not lull a baby, but they will encourage you to step lively.
To the casual visitor, Quaret-Terauq is a city that lies on both banks of a river, two equal and indistinguishable halves that make up a whole. To citizens, Q-T is the Twin Cities, sisters locked in a fearsome embrace, a union of complete opposites, yoked forever like yin and yang.
On a rolling plain where shaggy bison once roamed in herds that stretched to the distant horizon, Quaret-Terauq lies exposed to all manner of weather, placid and violent. Summer is hot, with pitiless sky and broiling sun, and often a thunderstorm late in the day, with screaming wind and hail. Autumn brings a halcyon spell of clear, dry days and the threat of wildfire. A sudden blizzard brings a long cold winter, as the ground freezes hard and the wind howls. Spring is capricious, a brief flirtation of daffodils and daisies, between the thaw and the enervating heat.
The weather gives people plenty to talk about. They enjoy the change of seasons, and the average temperature is okay. When pressed, they admit the extremes get tiresome. Strangely, though, the two sides seldom agree on whether a day is fair or foul. Quaret is sunny when Terauq is overcast. A bone-chilling wind blows down from the north on one side of town, while the other side gets a breeze from the west. A soaking rain falls on Terauq, and Quaret only gets a sprinkle. Forecasts are inaccurate, depending on who lives where.
The city arose as a crossing point, an active hub, a place where means of travel collide and goods transship. Late in the nineteenth century, railroads converged on the nascent town. Their effect was tremendous. As a knot in the network of rail transportation, Quaret-Terauq received a flood of raw materials, young men and women fresh off the farm, and immigrants from all over the world. Like a fast-growing organism rooted in place, the city absorbed and reordered this flood as its larger self. It looks all of a piece, a medal minted in the year 1900, a coherent urban statement. Yet citizens tell a different story.
Quaret began as mill town, they say, for agricultural products of the plains, especially grains. It added meat packing, lumberyards, sawmills, and related businesses like canning and pulp. The railroads inspired a natural progression to manufacturing: wood products, furniture, paper, and containers like boxes and cans. Quaret was blue-collar, a warren of factories, warehouses, mills, and assembly sheds, a roll-up-your-sleeves place to get things done. Workers and brawlers set the social tone, with their uncouth manners. They came from countries like Ireland, Norway, Poland, Italy, and Ukraine, and their dialects lay thick on the tongue. Taverns for the men and churches for the women, each provided its brand of entertainment. Plain red brick and rough-hewn stone were the building materials of choice, with no pretension to style.
Terauq, on the other hand, was created by fiat as the capital. White-collar from the start, it catered to the needs of lawyers, accountants, real estate brokers, commodity traders, bankers, tycoons, and financial wizards. These leaders recruited a host of minor department heads, inspectors, clerks, and executive secretaries. Inexorably, the political city got into publishing. Just as surely, it acquired a university. Terauq was a hive of office suites and polished corridors, of red plush lobbies and conference rooms. Polite banter and genteel manners became the norm. The ethnic stock was exclusively English, Welsh, and Scotch, with a sprinkle of others who changed their names and accents to fit in. Appointees, visitors, and top insiders liked nothing better than to sit down and talk, to spread an issue on the table and trace its parameters. In architecture, the Beaux-Arts School was the standard of taste, with classical columns and smooth-faced limestone.
So much for the origin myth. Two settlements were founded in the selfsame year, and they legally merged a few years later. They joined their names like a married couple. They grew together, and they shared all things in common. Today, the loveliest parks and residential streets are in working-class Quaret, and the worst slums are in upper-crust Terauq. Businesses are distributed throughout. The figures for population, wealth, and crime are equal on both sides of the river. The downtown core, with its shopping, theaters, and office towers, straddles the Main Street Bridge at the center like a modern-day Rialto.
It is wise, however, to flatter the inhabitants. Loyalty runs deep, and local pride is fierce when it comes to college football teams, high school basketball matches, neighborhood allotment gardens, charity functions, and parish life. Everything divides down the middle. Instead of taking sides in a conversation, let Quaret be Quaret and Terauq be Terauq. If you find it impossible to tell them apart, explain that you were born yesterday.
Wolb is a tiny, independent city-state, an insignificant dot on the map bordered by three great continental nations. Landlocked, hemmed in, at the mercy of its neighbors, it survives by playing one against the other in a geopolitical game that never ends. The Wolbese negotiate, flatter the great powers, and arrange affairs to the benefit of those who count. They provide a haven for dissidents, for notables who fall from grace, and for folks uneasy in the public eye. Secrecy is an option, and safety deposit boxes can be rented for a fee.
Officially neutral during centuries of war, protected by its rugged terrain, Wolb subscribes to a foreign policy of impregnability. All citizens are soldiers, men and women, including the old and physically handicapped. At the age of eighteen, they enroll in the army, and receive training in national defense. They are liable to serve on active duty until the age of sixty. They can mobilize on a moment’s notice. This universal draft has a curious effect, since everyone has a military rank in addition to their civil role. The nurse-midwife who delivers the baby of a bank executive may outrank him. Distinctions of income, education level, creed, color, age, and gender are rendered moot in the common cause.
What is more, Wolb boasts a mountain fortress with reinforced tunnels, a refuge equipped with secure sources of water and power, and stocked with food and supplies to last a year. Not only the leaders but most of the people, whole families and neighborhoods, can retreat to safety if viciously attacked. They conduct an annual drill for this purpose, a mass evacuation. What began as a military exercise has taken on the air of a holiday, a brief vacation, albeit mandatory. People picnic, drink, and play charades. Nothing gets done during that festive week. To foster preparedness, the government springs it without notice, so it falls at a different time each year.
In sober truth, any of Wolb’s neighbors could overrun the city in a matter of minutes, or drop a bomb, or sever vital lines of communication. That said, the border is clearly marked. Visitors stand out from the crowd. Despite their international embrace, the Wolbese are provincial. Their dialect is a flat intonation with hard consonants, as if they were clearing their throats or spitting. And their style of dress is distinctive. Both sexes are fond of hiking boots, knee socks, shorts, kerchiefs, and embroidered suspenders.
Apart from the annual emergency, people tend to be dour and evasive. They were famous in the past for smuggling, gambling, spying, forging documents, and spawning religious heresy. Once a bastion of Protestant sects that consigned all but a few to hell, today Wolb celebrates secularism in its own stiff way, with fines for excessive displays of wealth or affection in public.
The city itself is a miracle of smallness, efficient use of space, and concise style. There are no vacant lots or unleased shops. Every square meter is used for a practical or culturally significant purpose, such as day care for tots or an art museum. There are few bars, lounges, or places to waste your time and money, and none at all devoted to vice. If a building falls into disrepair, it is brought up to snuff or replaced at once. Enforcement of the municipal law is swift and strict, as it cannot be in a larger country. Residential blocks are orderly and clean. There are no homeless people, no beggars in the street. Subsidized apartments for the poor and elderly are guaranteed, if suitcase-like. The central business district is as neat as a pin. You can walk to any appointment in a flash, so long as you put on sensible shoes.
Historically, Wolb made much of miniatures. Dolls, dollhouses, and doll accessories were a popular export, and they rose to the level of collectible craft. A trade developed in snuffboxes, pill bottles, cameos, lockets, signet rings, plate set with artificial stones, and a wide array of imitation jewelry. Printing and engraving grew out of this tradition of fine workmanship and artful deception.
Clocks and watches were an economic mainstay, with scores of makers and retail shops. Today, you can scarcely go two steps without seeing the time. In keeping with this horological theme, the Wolbese are punctual to a fault. If you go, arrive early. And whatever you do, don’t overstay your welcome.
Robert Boucheron worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.