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Fear and Loathing in North Branford

40 years after Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' Columnist Keith Batter has been overcome with a similar wanderlust. Though his Great Red Shark is a Camry, he promises to leave behind a trail of potential stories for NB Patch.

Editor's note: This article is a work of fiction. It is also Mr. Batter's last submission to NB Patch. 

The sun has come upon a muddy new Sunday morning in Northford Center. The smell of bovine fecal matter is in the air, which signals to me that there are changes brewing. That, or there is a fire at McDonald's.

Like the rest of the town’s inhabitants, I have gone through the revolving doors of Dunkin' Donuts so a teenager can brew my coffee instead of doing it myself. Now, I find myself waiting for the drink to cool outside the establishment. I lean against a wall of red brick next to a sign that tells me not to loiter. But this isn’t loitering. I’m on the lookout for my next story. A journalist keeps his ear to the ground, after all.

Though I’ve got a keen eye, there isn’t a lot happening this morning. There’s the typical traffic at the gas stations situated right across the street from one another. Gas prices are up, but that hasn’t changed anything yet.

A police car strolls up to an idle across two parking spots in front of me and the driver eyes me suspiciously. In his view he probably imagines I’m too young to be an esteemed member of the community, but too old to be one of the middle school kids buying a blunt wrap or water pipe. Thus, he probably assumes I’m buying blunt wraps and water pipes for those kids. It’s all a big, sickening charade. The cop gets out of the car.

            “You see that sign there, son?”

            “What sign’s that, officer?” I blow some steam off the black surface of coffee in my cup.

            “The one that says no loitering on it. You’re tapping it with your fingers right now.”

            “Ah, yes,” I say lethargically, “well, I’m just waiting for my coffee to cool.”

            “Take it somewhere else,” he says.

            “I’m not loitering,” I try to reason with him, “I’m just doing my job.”

            “Well I’m doing my job too,” he answers. “I don’t get paid to just let you vagrants run rampant. Now I’m going into Dunkin' Donuts to get my light and sweet—on the house—because this town respects me. When I get back out here, you best be gone.”

A vagrant? Well that does it. Maybe I haven’t shaved in a few days and maybe there’s tape on my glasses. But I’m no vagrant. I’m a freelance writer. I pull fifty dollars a week, gosh darnit. I’ve been writing articles for months suggesting progressive, innovative, and helpful ways to help the town, and this is the treatment I get.

It’d been weighing on me already, the way the town starts to eat you up after a while. It isn’t just the way the police see young people and figure they’re criminals instead of figuring they’re the future of the town—the people who will one day pay their salaries. It isn’t just the budget-gouging disregard for our education system. Nor is it the seeming pride taken in keeping to antiquity. To be fair, it’s probably just me.

At any rate, I amble along the narrow lane on the side of the road balancing my coffee trying not to get hit by passing traffic all the way down to the Northford Diner, the last refuge for a weary man.

Inside, townspeople are hunched over stools at the counter reading the paper. There’s a few families, too. Not too busy. The church crowd hasn’t gotten this way just yet. In the far corner, though, I see my esteemed editor brooding over a plate stacked high with M&M pancakes, eggs over easy and toast.

            I stride over and sit down across from him.

            “How are ya?” he asks me, exhuming a chocolate morsel from the top pancake's crust.

            “Not too good,” I answer. “Existential crisis.”

            Candace heads over and smiles, handing me a menu.

            “Long time no see,” she says. “How are ya?”

            “Never been better,” I answer, taking a sip from my coffee cup. “Can I have another cup of coffee?”

            “Sure,” she says, and heads back to the kitchen.

            “Why so blue?” asks my esteemed editor.

            “I need to get out of town,” I tell him. “I’ve been here a little too long.”

            My editor looks up from his pancakes. He gets a serious look on his face.

            “You know I can’t keep you on as a columnist if you’re leaving the area,” he says. He goes back to scooping up yolk with his toast-and fingers. In doing so, an M&M, incredibly, slides into the egg-slime. I hide a cringe. 

And so the ultimatum was put down. I knew a number of other writers who’d been corralled into staying by the same logic, but it just wasn’t seeming worthwhile anymore. Sure the gig was paying me fifty bucks a week, but what was my freedom worth? Or my integrity? I still wasn’t entirely convinced that I wasn’t just helping the Web site’s parent company, AOL, develop an extensive long-term data mining operation coupled with a self-contained surveillance state. But a job’s a job, and I felt bad for my editor.

            “If there’s anything else I can do for you,” I tell him, “I’d like to help out. But I really need to get out of town.”

            “You got a job with the Register, didn’t you?” he says, stabbing at his plate with both fork and finger. 

            “No, it’s not that, Mr. Bagley.”

            “The Meriden Record-Journal? God, I knew this day would come! All we’ve got is ‘record-snow-this-and-stanley-tee-that’. I’ve got nothing to work with!” My esteemed editor got himself real worked up, and started combing his curly blonde afro with his fingertips, which were yolk-yellow from the constant stabbing at his plate. He took a deep breath, itched his neck, and downed his entire cup of coffee.            

            “No, Mr. Bagley, no. You’ve got me wrong. Maybe it’s true that hyper-local journalism can’t ultimately sustain itself without funding from a parent company known for data-mining unless they find a way to make users pay for content in a town that ultimately doesn’t generate enough to maintain an avid readership to begin with, but until that day you’ve got a great job. In a great community. But it’s just not for me. Fifty dollars a week isn’t going to keep me in town anymore, sir. I want to see the world.”

            “So it’s a raise you’re after then? I knew I smelled a fink, Batter!”

            “I don’t want your blood money, sir.”

Candace drops a cup of coffee on the table as she walks past, and I pour the contents into my Styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup.

            “Where do you figure you’re going to go?”

            “Anywhere else.”

            “When?”

            “Sooner than later.”

            “So I won’t be getting any more work from you?”

            “I don’t think so.”

            “Well look, Batter. Maybe on your way out of town, you could just, you know, work up a few stories for me.”

            “What are you asking for?”

            “Your esteemed editor can’t say. Be creative. You can do that, yes?”

            “I think so.”

I drop a two dollar bill on the table and shake Bagley’s hand, at this point covered to the wrist in yolky gook. I thank him for the work and wish him the best.

My car still sits in the center outside Mario’s. I’ve already got everything I need to subsist. I have my clothes, a toothbrush, sleeping bag, and a cache of notebook paper. There’s a road atlas and I have my skis as well. 

Alright, maybe there are a few things missing. Fortunately, all of the things I might still require could be obtained right in the center, on a good day. I loitered there for another hour, after which time I had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.*

As I made way for the nearest highway on-ramp, I considered everything my esteemed editor had done for me in the not-too-distant past. It was a tough spot I put him in, and it was true: the least I could do would be to stir up a little news on my way out.

The first calls I made were to my old high school compatriots Dana Haskins and Rob Lasko, two of the greatest track and field athletes our town has ever known. They met me in the student’s parking lot of the high school.

            “What’s this all about Keith?” asked Rob.

            “Yeah, I haven’t seen you in years,” said Dana. “This is pretty weird.”

            “We’re here to help my editor,” I told them. “You must still be welcome heroes around here. Can you do me a favor and go grab a few javelins out of the athletics closet?”

            “And what are you going to be doing in the meantime?”

            “I’ve got to build some speed bumps.”

After about twenty minutes, Dana and Rob returned with their arms full of javelins. I’d just finished pouring tall concrete barriers in the exits for both sides of the parking lot.  Come tomorrow morning, there were a number of students who’d be thanking me for a day off once they realized there would be no way to get into the lot. But I wouldn’t be around for the accolades.

            “Let’s head over to the Sportsplex,” I tell them.

            “You just blocked our cars in,” said Dana.

            “We’ll just take mine. Throw the javelins in the trunk.”

Down Route 80 just a way, North Branford’s bubble-dome Xanadu for indoor sports loomed large over a swath of cleared out land. This was the home of community soccer leagues, ultimate Frisbee tournaments, some of the best nachos in town, Mike Candelora, and could have been considered the town’s crowning architectural achievement. But I didn’t necessarily see it that way. I explained intensely to Rob and Dana as we unloaded the javelins from the car that this was a place responsible from removing sport from the outdoors, cheapening the experience. In addition, the Sportsplex had recently stolen John "Beardo" Maxson’s ACL in an inconsequential ultimate game.

            “That’s why you want us to throw javelins through the bubble?” Dana asked incredulously.

            I nodded.

            “That doesn’t seem legal,” answered Rob Lasko.

            I pulled out my Patch.com press badge. It was laminated.

            “Well, it is laminated,” mused Dana.

            “I’ll show you how it’s done, guys.” I picked up a javelin and threw it with all my might. It went about eight feet and went skidding across the parking lot.

            “Alright,” said Rob Lasko. “Step back.” He took a javelin in each arm and hucked them with precision on a line straight through the fabric of the bubble dome. A great rupture tore from the two incisions and ripped seams going upward. Great rushes of air began to sound as the fabric wavered and flummoxed like some ethereal flatulence.

Dana Haskins took a shot herself, and then we were on our way. I watched in my rearview mirror as dozens of frightened and excited field hockey players scrambled out with their coach, the interminable Coach Babby Nuhn.

 I dropped Dana and Rob back off at their cars, which were trapped behind large cement barriers in the high school parking lot. I realized I could have left town right then, but a thirst for news content overwhelmed me.

I realized then as I sped down Route 80 towards the other side of town that I had surprisingly little reading material for my travels. I went to the library in order to steal some books and use their computers to get onto Patch.com. While I was there, I added a post on Craig’s List offering up free land in various parts of town that had previously been owned by water company property. In truth, the land was fertile and sat dormant for no good reason. I saw no reason why I couldn’t advertise that a growing bohemian commune was popping up in reclaimed territory.

By the time I checked out a few magazines and books, I saw that my post had gotten a profound amount of traffic from true vagrants from all over Connecticut.

            ‘Yes,’ I replied to one post, ‘this is an autonomous zone where neither federal, state, or local law applies!’

            ‘It’s always hunting season in North Branford,’ I replied to another.

            ‘No, there isn’t an official religion at the reclaimed property. Yet. I personally have accepted Jesus as my savior, but I can give you the addresses of locals I know who haven’t!’

It became exhausting to reply to each query from these pilgrims, so I decided to logoff and let it all sort itself out in a laissez-faire fashion. I gave my library card to the librarian, who eyed me curiously as if she didn’t think it would be a good idea to let me check out this many books at one time. Like I wouldn’t return them or something. The books they had at the library were no good anyway—all vampires, harlequin, and murder-mystery—and they’d turned down my request at book donations months before anyway, so shame on them.

As I headed back onto the road, I noticed a number of out-of-town cars had begun to filter into traffic along with the church crowd that had just let out. A lot of the traffic was making way for Northford Park, where the lot was becoming congested. I noticed caravans of homeless, gypsies, impoverished, and artists all spilling out of these cars with bandstands, flags, guitars, dirty little children, pots and pans. They spilled across a soccer field where a number of local children had been rollicking in the mud. They crossed the baseball diamond and began climbing over the locked fence separating town property from water company property.

I got out of my car and stood by a local father who clutched his two children close by. He was frightened, clearly, and yet could not move.

            “What do you figure’s going on?” he asked me as I sidled closer.

            “I think they must’ve just learned that Santa Claus isn’t real.”

            “What the hell you mean by that?” asked the father, dumbfounded.

            “Nothing,” I answered, patting his two little kids on the head. I walked off towards the porta potty near the tennis court, and broke a tree branch off into the locked door handle. Someone was banging on the door when I got into the car.

The people of this little town were seeing the recourse of a journalist scorned. I hoped my esteemed editor would be pleased. It was good and evident to me by now that there were things happening in town. Maybe not good things—but noteworthy things, newsworthy things. Whatever happened to the town, at least Patch would have news content. The writers would be paid. It left me with that strange satisfaction of having a raw, unmistakable power at my disposal. And then, turning my ignition, with the ceremonial gypsy fires being lit behind me, I knew that perhaps I’d never be able to come back to Northford. Not after this letter of resignation, which happened also to be an admission of guilt. So, naturally, I had to find a way to go out on top, leaving the town behind me for good.

There was only one thing to do. I headed back down Route 17, straight into the belly of the beast.

With a couple phone calls and several favors from friends, it took me only two hours to have large pizzas from every place in town—Giovanni’s, Central, Oregano’s, Abate, Slice, Bella Lisa (and the list goes on: you can do a search for pizza in Patch.com’s restaurant directory)—and stacked them up in my backseat.

I headed for North Branford’s Central Plaza. As I’ve said a number of times, I am a self-proclaimed animal rights activist. And in the past, when I’ve seen the pigeons eating french fries and pooping all over the McDonald's parking lot, I felt horrible. Those poor animals didn’t deserve to have to eat that homogeneous crap, then crap it out, and keep eating, not being able to discern one form of crap from another. Those animals deserved some home-made, traditional North Branford pizza.

And they seemed to like it. As I pulled slice after slice from my car and flung them across the parking lot, the birds flocked around and squawked madly. They must have been communicating to each other, because birds came in scores that suggested tree limbs from miles away might have been vacated.

It filled me with pride to be helping these birds get a little culture in their stomachs. So much pride was I filled with, in fact, that I decided to make way for the pet shop in the plaza. I opened the front door at Fin, Feathers and Fur. The place smelled like a proper pet store should, but that didn’t mean those animals didn’t also deserve a meal without kibble or pellets or mice.

So I led the animals, each dog and cat and bird and fish and snake, all out to the McDonald's parking lot, and let them eat pizza. Just then, the same police car from that morning drove up next to me, scattering the pigeons as he took up two parking spaces.

            “You’re that punk from this morning, ain’t ya?” he asked me, hurrying out of the car.

            “Yes, I believe I’m the same one you made leave our primary shopping center because for some reason you don’t want us there spending money.”

            “Okay, wise guy, what gives?”

            Just then I heard gun shots. A hunting rifle, for certain.

            As the officer approached me, a voice came over the radio in his car.

            “Please report to Northford Park. We have hunters taking shots at deer. Rifles and crossbows! There’s so many!”

            “Are they talking about the deer or the hunters?” I ask the cop.

            “Friggin’ deer,” he mumbles to himself. He didn’t stick around to answer me. He spun out and was gone in 60 seconds. 

Eventually, I ran out of pizza. The animals all rested with satisfaction. As for me, it was time to hit the road. I felt like I couldn’t be touched, and that’s not a feeling you can let yourself dwell on. It’s only a matter of time before  your luck runs out. I turned the key in my ignition, and carefully avoided a cat that licked another cat that blocked the drive-thru lane. I named one cat Pancake and the other one Vampire. I waved goodbye to them and hit the road. It could be a long time before I settled down again.

I drove on down 139, and picked up Route 1. I knew then for certain, looking in my rearview mirror, that I’d never be able to return home again. But at least I’d left the place more varied, more in touch with the natural world, and, most importantly, well-fed. Somewhere, my editor would be smiling. I was too, even though I’d never be able to work for North Branford Patch again. But of course, there was always Branford Patch. I crossed the town border, feeling more at home already.

*This noted passage was taken directly from Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

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