Robert Mangeot’s short fiction is forthcoming in Mystery Weekly, and he blogs at SleuthSayers.org. Here he talks about the role of setting in his story from our current November/December 2020 issue, “On Loan From the Artist.”
Recently, I was driving state routes well beyond the Mid-South main highways. I cruised through pleasant towns of both modest size and postage stamp variety, but now and again, and not for the first time off the beaten path, I would pass through a town where the vibe turned dark and the air simmered with frustration.
You find these towns all over. Something has passed the place by, whether macroeconomic tides or a missed chance at prosperity, or else an original sin. At some point, a good old boy boss type wrangled them this state route money, and all it brought was a scar of blacktop for a business district. Election signs for the current good old boy greet you at the town line. The nicest building is the Church of Christ, or it’s the First Baptist. There’s a junk yard and jockey lot, a tire shop, a utility district prefab office, a crumbling gas station hawking CBD. Driving through is like intruding on a hundred little tragedies connected to that one something.
In this part of the world, that sin could well be injustice. Swaths of America haven’t made peace with their past because, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past is very much their present. For a struggling town’s unkind souls, the place turned them that way. It’s easier to embrace a narrative than admit their sin, no matter that the price for cleansing a worn narrative goes up daily. For the good souls there, to hang around means lost opportunity and—given who you are and what you believe—danger. A better life is that next county over, or it’s that jump onto the interstate and wherever opportunity can knock. For those who can’t leave, the not-so-quiet desperation cycles on.
In every desperate town, there’s a loan shop.
Probably, it’s a converted house. Or it’s a strip mall endcap. Either way, the windows are barred. The entrance is a cage door, and whoever comes and goes is very much on camera. The loans are subprime stuff, second mortgages, payday lending. A lifeline in moderation. Otherwise, debt becomes part of the local trap.
This was the setting dynamic I hoped to capture—to bring attention to—with “On Loan from the Artist,” in the November/December 2020 AHMM. Small town Mid-South, lousy economy, nothing going well except the loan app count. That unhappy town would produce someone steeped of that vibe, integral to it—someone a bit inured to it. Bench is that guy. He runs the loan business for a checked-out owner. “Artist” is about face-of-the-town Bench’s own frustrations bubbling forward.
Human nature can read a higher calling into any line of work: plumber, accountant, Chamber of Commerce flack for a state route postage stamp town. Bench sees his lending job as a valued community servant, that helpful partner toward the next payday. He’s good at relationships, too, if low on ambition. When the economy bites as far as the subprime business, the owner starts bringing a loan shark’s hand to collections. Bench finds a bold streak and pushes back, even grabs for the reins. His problem is that you can’t keep what’s not yours. Unresolved history, self-perceptions, even borrowed courage, whatever is taken or denied builds up costs that must always be repaid.
Which gets back to that withering town with the four lanes and constant seethe. If its future can’t break from its past, then its future is grim: more slow decline and a resentment mill that grinds what could be brighter days and civic energy. Often, my fiction seeks a truth through humor. “Artist” does not. It never could’ve. People like Bench decide early on between roots or greener pastures, and Bench chose to stay. Unhappy place, unhappy story.