Author’s Note: Florida, New York is a small, irrelevant village located about 75 miles outside of New York City, in Orange County.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Gossips,” 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948. Oil on canvas. Private collection. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
He didn’t even have a chance to unpack a single item before the first roach appeared on his doorstep.
“Hi there,” said Mary Teltofski, a woman in her seventies. “I’m Mary. I just wanted to welcome you to town.”
“Hi, Mary. That’s really nice. My name is Keith. Keith Malek. Come in.”
“I’m sorry. I see that you’re not situated yet. I won’t be long. I just–”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Can I get you a glass of water? I would like to offer you something else, but as you can see, I haven’t even moved in yet.”
“No, thank you. I’m fine. So, where did you move from?”
“The city,” said Malek.
“Oh dear…oh my.”
Malek didn’t know how to respond to that.
“It sure must be different here, huh?”
“I suppose.” Of course it was different, but Malek didn’t want to be rude by elaborating on how different it was. “Hey, let me ask you something, Mary. When I was driving in, I saw that there was a statue in the middle of town. Who is it of?”
“William Henry Seward.”
“Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State?”
“Yeah. You heard of him?”
“Of course. He was stabbed by John Wilkes Booth the night that Lincoln was assassinated. Why is there a statue of him?”
“Because he was born here.”
“Really? Wow! That is so interesting.”
Tetelski didn’t seem nearly as interested until she laughed and said,”You wanna hear something funny?”
“Most of the time, the kids in town cover up Seward’s head with an empty garbage can.”
“Why do they do that?”
“Because it’s funny.”
You people are a little hard-pressed for humor if that’s what passes for funny around here Malek thought but did not say.
“And you wanna hear something else? Every year, when the high school takes a group pitcher of the senior class for the yearbook, they take it in front of that statue. The photographer always asks that two kids climb the statue, one on each side, and what the kids do is they make it look like they’re picking Seward’s nose.”
She laughed again. Malek had too much of an appreciation for history to find this funny. Plus, he wasn’t six years old, so the humor was lost on him. Nor did it go unnoticed by Malek that she pronounced the word “picture” as “pitcher.”
“Other than that,” he asked, “what do people do for fun around here?”
“This is a huge soccer town.”
“Yeah. The high school team.”
“Okay. But what do the adults do?”
“They go to the games too.”
“I see.” Malek had no interest in sports. He lived a life of both intellectual and humanitarian purpose, and saw sports and television as being pointless. He always thought that the only thing more pathetic than a bunch of people getting all worked up over how well a bunch of strangers chase a ball is when a bunch of grown-ups get all worked up over how well a bunch of teenagers chase a ball. They do this down in Texas, where the state obsession is high school football. He didn’t expect a similar phenomenon to occur in this part of the country. “Well, the reason why I moved out here,”he said, “and I only plan on living here temporarily, is to finish my novel.”
Mary looked at him suspiciously.”You’re a writer?”
“Not exactly. I–”
“Oh, there goes that Ellen Jarabowski again,” said Mary, looking out the window. “That’s strange. She usually leaves her house at exactly 8:55 every morning, but right now it’s 9:01. I wonder if she’s hung over.”
Still looking out the window, Mary asked, “Your novel. Is it fiction or non-fiction?” Before Malek could process that, something else caught Mary’s attention. “The woman that lives across the street from you? Her name is Sue Stantowski. She’s drinking from an orange coffee mug, which is something that she does every morning. It’s always the same coffee mug. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Well you don’t know the whole story. It’s interesting because that must be the only coffee mug that she owns. And the reason why she owns only one coffee mug is because her husband got fired from his job. Do you want to know why he got fired?”
“He got fired because he was sleeping with his secretary.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Mary, but I’m not particularly interested in all the scuttlebutt.” Malek tried to deflect her cold stare by changing the subject. “So, it looks like we’re going to get some rain, huh?”
“Oh, tell me about it. They say it’s going to rain for five days straight.”
“Good. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I’m a bit of a pluviophile. I love the rain. It reminds me of Ireland, my favorite vacation spot.” For reasons that Malek couldn’t comprehend, Teltofski started to look quite uncomfortable. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. It’s just…I was just wondering about your novel.” This was a lie, of course. The woman who didn’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction was not the least bit curious about Malek’s novel.
“It’s about the 1919 Paris peace talks between Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau. I’m quite pleased with how it’s going. I started this novel many years ago, but I felt obligated to sort of put it on the back burner after Margaret MacMillan published her book ‘Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.’ Her book is non-fiction, but I still didn’t want it to look like I might have been stealing from her. It reminds me of that quotation from Elbert Hubbard, ‘The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.’ Anyway, I eventually decided to take a shot at it and renew my efforts.”
Mary wasn’t accustomed to this type of conversation, so she remained silent.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to swing it financially, but I would like to visit Paris. It’s not essential that I do that, but it might help me gain inspiration for the novel. Like the French painter Jean Cocteau once said, ‘Art is a marriage between the conscious and the subconscious.’ How about you, Mary? Have you ever been to Paris?”
Malek laughed uproariously. “You have quite a brobdingnagian wit. I like you, Mary.”
Malek did not realize that she wasn’t joking, for Malek had no idea where he had moved to. Therefore, he had no idea that that he should not not use words like “brobdingnagian,” or even the word “novel.” And if he had known better he wouldn’t have proceeded to discuss how growing one’s own food is “an effective way of fighting the military industrial complex.” He would’ve shortened that statement to “I look forward to gardening.” But, again, Malek had no idea where he was.
Mary Teltofski knew where she was. And she had work to do.
* * * * *
The first one Mary talked to was Ann Merebelski. “A new guy moved into the Warjowski’s old house.”
“Yeah, I saw the moving van. Did you meet him?”
“I did, and let me just tell you…”
“What? What?” she said eagerly.
“I don’t even know where to begin. The first thing you need to know is that he’s incredibly stupid. Like, brain damaged. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a person so dumb.”
“Really. Nothing he said made any sense at all.” Merebelski laughed.
“But the times that he did make sense? Well, let me just give you a piece of advice. Stay away from him.”
“For one thing, he’s a pervert. He told me that he wanted to scuttle my butt.” Merebelski gasped.
“Not only that, but when we were talking about the weather, he just comes right out and casually mentions that he’s a pedophile.”
“What? No way!”
“I swear on my life! He didn’t even say it with any sense of shame. No,’Listen, this is uncomfortable for me to mention, but the court says I have to do it.’ None of that.”
“You mean to tell me that he just said, out of nowhere, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m a pedophile’?”
“Yes! He mentioned that it’s going to rain all week, then he said something about Ireland, and then he was like, ‘I’m a pedophile.’ I’m not completely certain, but I think what he said was that he used to live in Ireland and got kicked out for being a pedophile.”
“Well, I’m just going to have to tell everybody,” said Merebelski. “I don’t want no pedophiles living in these here parts.”
Teltofski continued.”But wait. There’s more. While mentioning that he wanted to go to Paris–”
“Hold on. He wants to go to Paris?”
“Yeah. Where is that, by the way?”
“Oh, so he must be a gay.”
Merebelski laughed and said, “I was just about to ask you that.”
“I think he is. He mentioned something about not being able to…swing it? And then he used the word ‘financial.’ I don’t know. Like I said, he’s really dumb and I had no idea what he was talking about. But I got the impression from what he was saying that he’s a swinger, and that he’s dating a man who works in finance. In fact, I thought I heard him say that his boyfriend’s name is Jean and that he has a big cock.”
“He told you that?”
“How rude! And gross! What does this Malek guy look like, anyway?”
“Oh, he is ugly as sin! He’s got the ugliest pair of eyes you’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s hard to even hold his gaze. That’s how ugly he is. Second, he’s got this weird, high-pitched voice. It’s annoying to even hear him speak. Like, you have to force yourself to listen to him.”
The truth is that Teltofski found him to be highly attractive, and if she were forty years younger and not living in Florida, New York, she would have pursued that attraction. So would eighty percent of the women in that town, but Florida operated on a groupthink mentality. So if Malek was shunned by one, he was shunned by all, and instantly became “ugly.” Whether it was in intelligence, looks, or kindness, anyone who was above average was in for a lot of pain in this town, because the normal rules of human behavior and social discourse did not apply here.
It’s one thing if the poorly educated misinterpret a statement. Telling lies about a person’s physical appearance and voice–especially when those lies are told out of a sense of jealousy–is quite another thing. So far, Mary Teltofsky had done both of those things. But Teltofsky was about to take things to a whole other level. It was time to get creative.
“And then…and please don’t tell anyone I said this.” Teltofski somehow managed to say this with a straight face despite knowing that Merebelski would tell everyone, which was, of course, the entire point. “But when I was there, another man walked into the kitchen. He was wearing a t-shirt that had a rainbow flag on it, and nothing else!” Merebelski gasped again. “Not only that, but he had a huge erection, and, with a French accent, said, “Keith, come back to bed.”
“Oh my God! That must’ve been that Jean guy!” Then, after a brief pause, she added, “Well, I guess we can’t be surprised, what with him being from the city and all.”
“Yeah, no kidding. You know how those city folk are. In fact, I don’t think he even likes soccer.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“He asked what the locals do for fun up here. Real stuck up, you know? So I told him how everybody goes to the high school soccer games, and he looked at me like I was crazy.”
“What a snob.”
“I know. He don’t realize he’s not in the city no more. There’s no Gay Pride parades or whatever it is his kind is used to.”
“Yeah, but you mark my words. He’ll probably have more of his kind moving here, and before you know it, they’ll be havin’ one of their parades right here on Main Street.”
“Not as long as I’m living here they won’t.”
Of course, Teltofski wasn’t smart enough to realize that if Malek had promised to “scuttle her butt,” it would be contradictory for him to also be gay. And Merebelski lacked the critical thinking skills to notice Teltofski’s contradiction.
“Oh, and then he mentioned something about wanting to fight against the military. I think he might be a terrorist.”
Merebelski had heard enough. She immediately went to visit her sister/cousin Laurie Cramkowski. “That new guy that just moved into town?” she told her. She repeated everything that Tetelski had told her and added, “By the way, Malek is an extremely common name in the Middle East. Draw your own conclusions.” It didn’t matter that Malek was also a Polish name, a fact that the residents of Florida, New York should have appreciated since the town was ninety-five percent Polish. In fact, Cramkowski repeated the lie to her husband, Skeeter, and added, “He claims to be a writer, but that’s just a cover story. It turns out that Keith’s family are members of the Saudi royal family, and they helped finance 9/11.”
Skeeter lacked the critical thinking skills to notice that Keith is not a Middle Eastern name, so he repeated these lies to Martha Lishemski, and added on the juicy, made up detail that Friday’s soccer game was just cancelled due to terrorist threats called in by Malek’s family.
Lishemski did not repeat that story when she gossiped about Malek to her neighbor, Beth Gorishski, because she didn’t know what a Saudi was and didn’t want to appear stupid, even though this was Florida, New York. She also didn’t particularly care about 9/11 because it affected residents of New York City and not the “real America,” which is to say, rednecks like her. Instead, she simply repeated all of the other rumors that were going around about Malek, but added the made up detail that Keith and his boyfriend had broken into the high school and punctured all of the soccer balls to prevent the game from happening, and they did it because Keith’s boyfriend, “Jean,” was kicked off of France’s soccer team for illegal doping.
Beth Gorishski also did not know what a Saudi was or what 9/11 was about, but unlike Lishenski, that did not stop her from referring to Malek as a “Saudi terrorist” when she talked to her friend, Wanda Kizmenski. She added the little embellishment that Malek’s sister was arrested by local police captain Bob Ehlers for her role in a plot to bomb the upcoming Jimmy Sturr polka concert. “That doesn’t surprise me at all that the terrorists would want to bomb the Jimmy Sturr concert,” said Kizmenski. “For years, I’ve been saying that’s a prime target.” In reality, no terrorist on this entire planet, foreign or domestic, had any clue as to who Jimmy Sturr was, or that a town called Florida, New York even existed. But a universal trait among Florida residents has always been to think otherwise, to think that nothing else mattered or existed but Florida, New York. When afflicted with that sense of delusion, it became quite tangible to think that concert goers were in danger. It should also be noted that once the rumor mill started spinning in Florida, New York, it was not an example of that old game of Chinese Telephone. There wasn’t a lack of communication that made tidbits of gossip get accidentally exaggerated. When people would build upon false rumors, they did it knowingly. They lied. Beth Gorishski believed that Malek was a terrorist because that’s what she had been told. Granted, she had never met Malek. How could she have? He had moved into town less than an hour ago. She didn’t even know what he looked like. But she was certain that Malek was a terrorist because scandals are fun to believe in, so it was also fun to add to the excitement by concocting a false story that Malek’s sister was arrested for plotting to bomb the polka concert. One thing that Keith Malek would soon learn is that soccer was not the sport that this town’s residents were the most passionate about. Not by a long shot. Gossip was the all-consuming passion of these simpletons, and they approached it like a bloodsport.
That is why Beth Gorishski had no moral qualms to call up JoAnne Zatuski and tell her that “the new guy in town” had exposed himself to a seven-year-old girl in the park.
It’s why Zatuski had no problem calling up Tiffany Sturgeski and telling him that Malek had a swastika tattooed on his penis.
Its why Sturgeski immediately told her Uncle Cleetus that when police chief Bob Ehlers entered Malek’s home to arrest him for trafficking heroine, he found an oven in Malek’s basement filled with the corpses of dead Jews.
And it’s why Cleetus told Erin Ramonski that Malek had engaged in a four day long, armed standoff with Nevada police. “Google it if you don’t believe me,” he told her, even though he wasn’t completely sure what Google was.
Erin Ramonski felt particularly creative that day, telling Zeb Bertarski that Malek had gotten fired from his job at Burger King in the nearby town of Goshen for sticking his dick in the deep frier. “It burned the swastika tattoo right off,” she said.
“You see that cigar you’re smoking there?” Bertowski rhetorically asked his friend, Tom Tretchski. “The new guy in town, his name is Malek, shoved a cigar even bigger than the one you’re smoking into the eyeball of a four-year-old kid. He did it at Disney World. And it was all because the kid cut him in line at the teacup ride. That bastard! Blinded the kid for life.”
Tretchski repeated the Disney lie to Adam Mejuski, and added that Malek got raped in prison every day for a year as a result.
Mejuski had heard enough. He immediately went to Malek’s house and banged on the door. “Jesus Christ,” Malek said to himself. “Is this how people knock around here?” He opened the front door and saw a man with a missing tooth and a mullet standing before him. It wouldn’t take long before Malek would come to realize that this was a common look for men in this town.”Can I help you?”
“Yeah, you can help me. You can help me by staying the hell away from my three boys, Billy Ray, Jimmy Ray, and Timmy Ray. And you can stay the hell away from every kid in this town, you sick, gay, pedophile, terrorist, soccer hating, Nazi, child abusing fuck!”
Ten minutes later, Malek looked out his kitchen window and spotted his original “welcoming committee,” Mary Teltofski. She peered into someone’s front window, jotted down a few notes onto a clipboard, and then moved on to the next home. Malek stormed out of his house. “Excuse me!” he shouted. He didn’t care how old she was; he didn’t need this aggravation. Leaning into her, he yelled, “Do you care to tell me why there’s already about a dozen false rumors going around about me when I’ve only been in this town for less time than it takes most people to eat breakfast?”
Teltofski feigned a look of shock and confusion, but there was also a slight glint in her eye. Not only was she not ashamed. She was enjoying this. Malek decided to switch tactics. He had a hunch that since this was a town of hillbillies, what he was about to do would really hit them where it hurts. At the top of his lungs, he screamed, ” NASCAR ISN’T A SPORT AND DALE EARNHARDT WAS A FAGGOT!”
He wasn’t accustomed to using such slurs. It was 2016. Why the hell would he care about what other people did in their bedrooms? But he was in redneck country, and he knew that they would care. In fact, wasn’t one of the rumors that was going around about Malek was that he was gay? He didn’t like coming down to their level, but going for the jugular clearly worked, for the smile immediately vacated Teltofski’s face. Just when Malek was about to tell her that Budweiser tastes like piss (he was on a roll now), Teltofski, through clenched teeth, said, “You have ten minutes to leave this town. That’s it. Ten minutes, and don’t you ever come back!”
“I rented this house. I’ll leave when I’m good and rea-”
“GET THE FUCK OUT!!!”
The funny thing is that Malek thought he had won. He understood that he wasn’t going to make any friends here, but that was never his aim to begin with. Now that he put Teltofski in her place, he thought that it was over. Once again, he had underestimated the stupidity of the people of this town. But to a certain extent, so did Teltofski. She warned Malek to leave town within ten minutes. It only took eight minutes for all twenty-five-hundred of the shit-kickers to assemble in front of Malek’s home. He was unpacking a box full of books when a brick went crashing through his front window, missing him by inches.
“Come out here, boy!” shouted a redneck even though Malek was thirty-seven and not a boy. “You wanna talk about Dale Earnhardt? You done did got yourself in trouble now!”
Malek looked out his window and saw that the rednecks had shotguns and–the cliche of all cliches–pitchforks. They actually had pitchforks. Still holding a book in his hands, Malek sprinted through the front door and headed down South Main Street, running toward the center of town. “GIT EM!” someone shouted. “Kill his ugly ass,” shouted one of the women, even though she was planning on masturbating to Malek later that evening. Fortunately for Malek, several generations of inbreeding among the townsfolk produced slow runners, so he was able to get ahead of them by at least fifty yards. He knew that he would never be able to return to this town, which was just fine by him. For now, all he cared about was his immediate safety.
He was starting to get tired, but stopping was not an option. Just when he started to think that he might be able to get away, he heard the hum of an approaching engine and felt a sharp pain shoot up the back of his leg as he fell to the ground. The mob behind him cheered. Looking up, he saw the equivalent of Larry The Cable Guy (they all looked like him) sitting on top of one of those three-wheeled vehicles that hicks like to ride around on in the woods. What were those things called anyway? Regardless of what they were called, Larry was sitting on one, clutching a crowbar. “I bet you wish you could hail a cab now, huh, City Boy?” he chuckled. Malek was a dead man. Even if he could somehow get rid of Larry, he had to deal with the rest of the village, and there was no way he would be able to outrun them with only one good leg.
When he glanced to his right, he saw it. He was directly in front of the statue of William Henry Seward. Sure enough, a garbage can was placed over his head. It was at that moment that it all became clear to him as to why they would do that. They didn’t put a garbage can over Seward’s head or pretend to pick Seward’s nose in photographs just because they’re a bunch of corn-fed honkies. They did it because Seward was a great man. Seward left the town of Florida and did something with his life. In any other town, residents would be proud of these things. But not here. In Florida, New York, nails that stick out get hammered down. Seward knew how to read, and so did Malek, and now Malek would be killed for it right in front of Seward’s statue. The irony was not lost on him. That’s when he noticed that he was still clutching a book. He waited until the mob got to within about fifteen feet of him, and then he tossed the book on the ground in front of them. Those in the front stopped dead in their tracks, which caused everyone behind them to stop as well. The front of the mob stared at the strange, unfamiliar object in front of them.
“What the hell is that thing?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know,” answered another. “It looks to be made out of some sort of…paper.”
“Don’t touch it,” cautioned another. “Whatever that thing is, it could be dangerous.”
“Yeah,” piped in another idiot. “It could be a bomb. Remember. He’s a terrorist.”
With that, the crowd backed away slowly, then a little quicker, and then a little quicker than that, until the entire town was sprinting in the opposite direction. Malek was no longer scared. He knew that he only had less than one mile left before he crossed the border into the next town, and even with a hobbled leg, he knew that the hayseeds wouldn’t be coming anywhere near him. Not with a book lying right in the middle of Main Street. He would eventually hire some movers to go back to his rented house and retrieve his possessions. They could move them to some neutral location outside of this strange, evil little town. It would be easy for them since he hardly had a chance to unpack anything before being forced out. Malek smiled at the thought of a bomb squad arriving from some other town’s police force, and some cop having to explain to one of Florida’s cops, “Sir…this is what’s known as a book.” It then occurred to him that he didn’t even know which book it was that he had tossed in front of them. He looked back, and this time, he laughed even harder.
It was a travel guide to France.