Book excerpt: ‘Community Board’ by Tara Conklin
The new novel from the author of “The Last Romantics” is set in the fictional town of Murbridge, Massachusetts.
From Community Board by Tara Conklin. Copyright © 2023 by Tara Conklin. Reprinted courtesy of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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MURBRIDGE COMMUNITY MESSAGE BOARD
Note from the Moderator—PLEASE READ.
Recently I’ve seen some questionable posts on our Community Message Board. Let this serve as a gentle reminder of our mission in this virtual sphere. We are here to: first, share neighborhood-related PERTINENT information; second, sell, trade or donate APPROPRIATE goods and services; and third, generally IMPROVE our neighborly relations. Our Community Board is NOT: a dating site; a marketing site; a place to air private political views; a place to personally attack or otherwise malign any Murbridge resident. Any such posts will be flagged, investigated and the poster banned for LIFE.
Please remember, we’re all in this together! Show kindness to your fellow Murbridgeans. Thank you for your understanding.
Sincerely, your moderator, Pat Pernicky
Murbridge, the site of my birth, childhood, adolescence and every Thanksgiving of my life, is a small town in western Massachusetts. It boasts a 7-Eleven, a post office, a library, a corner grocery that sells salami sandwiches and lighter fluid, a manicure place, a dry cleaner. Some parts are old and quaint, others newish and rough. In the fall, the tall maples along Main Street turn startling shades of red and gold. In the summer, hordes of mosquitoes descend between the hours of 6 and 8 p.m. to feast upon short-sleeved citizens. Neighboring towns bear historic markers—this hotel where Hamilton once slept, that grassy knoll upon which Washington once shot an arrow—or contemporary centers for artistic expression. Modern dance flourishes in the small towns of western Mass, ditto experimental theater, architectural extravagance and locally sourced cuisine. But not so in Murbridge. No one famous lives here. No national scandals have erupted here. No remarkable weather event or unsolved crime or suspected supernatural happening distinguishes Murbridge from its neighbors.
Horticulture, however, sets the town apart in one interesting way. Long ago, when Murbridge was just another tract of fertile virgin forest and unspoiled streams traversed by happy animals and native Mahican tribespeople, a group of starving Pilgrims stumbled through the woods. The year was 1677. Our hardy band had departed Plymouth Colony due to a personal dispute between two men, the specifics of which remain unsubstantiated in historical documents but were rumored to involve, naturally, a woman. The woman and her chosen partner remained at Plymouth while the spurned man, a Mr. Gideon Tinker, and his closest buds took off in search of open land. The trek did not go well. After three weeks of bear attacks and bad berries, our Pilgrims were weak and disheartened.
This brutal, fickle land! cried Gideon. Why the hell didn’t we stay in Plymouth? It was stinky and rainy but at least there was a pub.
At that very moment, Gideon felt his feet grow wet. He looked down and found himself standing directly atop a miraculous burble of fresh water spurting from a mossy and rock-strewn spring. Gideon, giddy from thirst, threw himself atop the spring, scooping up water with his hands and, in the process, disturbing a sizable group of mushrooms that sprouted beside the spring. In his haste, some of these mushrooms made their way into Gideon’s mouth.
Gideon did not retch or vomit. He swallowed the mushrooms down and said: Hmmmm. Good eating.
Soon enough, every member of the party was drinking fresh spring water and chewing on woodland mushrooms. Unbeknownst to them, these mushrooms contained significant amounts of the hallucinogenic psilocybin. Within the hour, all the colonists became wondrously, supremely happy, visions of friendly bears and gigantic potatoes dancing before their eyes. They agreed: here is where we should settle, right here, beside this fresh spring and these delightful mushrooms.
When the Pilgrims awoke the next day, they saw the error of their fungi-induced decision: the land was too mushy and murky to support wooden structures. Did they despair? No, they merely backed themselves up onto sturdier land within spitting distance of the spring. There, they felled trees, constructed a handful of houses and, as a matter of high priority, built a bridge over the marshy land to allow for easy access to the spring and those miraculous mushrooms.
The “mushroom bridge” became, in time, Murbridge, and, well, here we are. Murbridge is notable as the only New England town founded not by religious missionaries but by recreational drug users. In those early years, Murbridge established itself as a place of peaceful communion between colonists and members of the Mahican tribe, who were well aware of the local psychedelics. Neighboring Mahicans often visited the spring, plucked a mushroom or two and sat around the fire with the Murbridgean colonists, shooting the shit and trading wolf pelts. These friendly evenings continued until the mid-1830s when a series of one-sided land deals left the Mahicans bitter and hungry. In the end, colonial land lust proved stronger than hallucinogenic bonding, and over one brutal weekend in 1844, the Murbridge townspeople slaughtered all the Mahican men and ran the women and children out of town, forcing them to march west to their new “home” in northern Wisconsin.
Today, there’s a plaque in the middle of town to commemorate the Mahicans and thanking them for their service. Long ago, the original bridge fell into the muck but others followed. A stretch of aluminum now extends over the marsh, which in 1985 was designated the Western Massachusetts Wetland Bird Protection Zone. The spring itself is a burbling water feature fronted by a viewing platform and surrounded by uniformly round river stones imported from China. I’ve never seen a mushroom anywhere in the vicinity, and believe me, I’ve looked. Every May, graduating seniors from Murbridge High venture into the marsh to search for the famed fungi. It’s a local rite of passage, our own little vision quest. No one has ever found a local mushroom, as far as I know, although plenty of specimens purchased elsewhere have been consumed on-site.
Murbridge now boasts a population of just under three thousand souls, an economy based on tourism (old houses, rare birdlife, leaf color), a private residential mental health facility, a nearly defunct paper mill and the provision of goods and services to the white collar city professionals who want to raise their kids in a picturesque small town and don’t mind a hellish two-hour commute to and from Boston. It’s an interesting mix of people, let me tell you, a true melting pot of socioeconomic, cultural and racial differences. A place of penny candy and Protestants, low crime rate, middling property taxes, Somali grocery stores, kosher butchers, fantastic Peruvian food, high-speed internet and amiable postal workers. An oasis of calm and decent public schools. A place so apparently peaceful and prosperous that, growing up here, I sincerely believed in the continuing vitality of the American Dream.
As I drove the Mass Turnpike, past Chicopee and Holyoke and Westfield, the thought never once crossed my mind that Murbridge may have changed.
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