Once upon a world
where time is place
a journey beyond imagination
is about to unfold....
The project Miss Schwartz had set for Candy's class was simple enough. Everyone had a week to bring into school ten interesting facts about the town in which they all lived. Something about the history of Chickentown would be fine, she said, or, if students preferred, facts about the way the town was today, which meant, of course, the same old stuff about chicken farming in modern Minnesota.
Candy had done her best. She'd visited the school library and scoured its shelves for something, anything, about the town that to her sounded vaguely interesting. There was nothing. Nada, zero, zip. There was a library on Naughton Street that was ten times the size of the school library; so she went there. Again, she scanned the shelves. There were a few books about Minnesota that mentioned the town, but the same boring facts were repeated in volume after volume. Chickentown had a population of 36,793 and it was the biggest producer of chicken meat in the state. One of the books, having mentioned the chickens, described the town as “otherwise undistinguished.”
Perfect, Candy thought. I live in a town that is otherwise undistinguished. Well, that was Fact Number One. She needed only nine more.
"We live in the most boring town in the country," she complained to her mother, Melissa, when she returned home. "I can't find anything worth writing about for Miss Schwartz." Melissa Quackenbush was in the kitchen, making meatloaf. The kitchen door was closed, so as not to disturb Candy's father, Bill. He was in a beer-induced slumber in front of the television, and Candy's mother wanted to keep it that way. The longer he stayed unconscious, the easier it was for everyone in the house -- including Candy's brothers, Don and Ricky -- to get on with their lives. Nobody ever mentioned this aloud. It was a silent understanding between the members of the household. Life was more pleasant for everyone when Bill Quackenbush was asleep.
"Why do you say it's boring?" Melissa asked, as she seasoned the meatloaf.
"Just take a look out there," Candy said.
Melissa didn't bother, but that was only because she knew the scene outside the window all too well. Beyond the grimy glass was the family's chaotic backyard: the shin-high grass browned by the heat wave that had come unexpectedly in the middle of May, the inflatable pool they'd bought the previous summer and had never deflated and stowed away, now a dirty circle of red-and-white plastic at the far end of the yard. Beyond the collapsed pool was the broken fence. And beyond the fence? Another yard in not much better shape, and another, and another, until eventually the yards ended, and the streets too, and the empty grasslands began.
"I know what you want for your project," she said.
"Oh?" said Candy, going to the fridge and taking out a soda. "What do I want?"
"You want something weird," Melissa said, putting the meat into the baking tin and thumbing it down. "You've got a little morbid streak in you, just like your grandma Frances. She used to go to the funerals of complete strangers -- "
"She did not," Candy said with a laugh.
"She did. I swear. She loved anything like that. You get it from her. You certainly don't get it from me or your dad."
"Oh well, that really makes me feel welcome."
"You know what I mean," Candy's mother protested.
"So you don't think Chickentown is boring?" Candy said.
"There are worse places, believe me," Melissa said. "At least it's got a bit of history..."
"Not much of one. Not according to the books I looked at," Candy said.
"You know who you should talk to?" Melissa said.
"Norma Lipnik. You remember Norma? She and I used to work at the Comfort Tree Hotel together?"
"Vaguely," Candy said.
"All kinds of strange things happen at hotels. And the Comfort Tree has been around since . . . oh, I don't know. You ask Norma, she'll tell you."
"Is she the one with the white-blond hair, who always wore too much lipstick?"
Melissa looked up at her daughter with a little smile. "Don't you go saying anything rude to her now."
"I wouldn't do a thing like that."
"I know how these things slip out with you."
"Mom. I'll be really polite."
"Good. You do that. She's the assistant manager there now, so if you're real nice to her, and you ask the right questions, I bet you she'll give you something for your project that nobody else in class will have."
"You go over there and ask her. She'll remember you. Ask her to tell you about Henry Murkitt."
"Who's Henry Murkitt?"
"You go and ask her. It's your project. You should get out there and do some legwork. Like a detective."
"Is there much to detect?" Candy said.
"You'd be surprised."
She was. The first surprise was Norma Lipnik herself, who was no longer the tacky woman that Candy remembered: her hair teased high and her dress too short. In the eight years or so since Candy had seen Norma, she had let her hair go naturally gray. The bright red lipstick was a thing of the past, as were the short dresses. But once Candy had introduced herself, Norma's new professional reserve was soon cast to the winds, and the warm gossipy woman Candy remembered emerged.
"Lord, how you have grown, Candy," she said. "I never see you around; you or your mother. Is she doing okay?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"I heard your dad lost his job at the chicken factory. Had a little problem with the beer, so I was told?" Candy didn't have time to agree or deny this. "You know what? I think that sometimes people should be given second chances. If you don't give people second chances, how are they ever going to change...