“The Church in the Next Town Over” by Craig Greenman



One worries about a confessional tone right off the bat.

Or an easy familiarity, as if you knew me already.  It’s more polite to start with a landscape.  So imagine a hyacinth road; a house with a thatched roof; a girl waving a handkerchief; a group of soldiers, marching to war; and lemonade, offered but spilled, making a brief wet spot in the road, like love.

But I will abandon this landscape and try another.  Outside my room, where I live and work, is a desert of trees, mountains, and flowers.  The trees are tall; the mountains have valleys between them, as any two mountains must; and the flowers don’t smell like anything.

Near where I live, if you open a website, is China; and there the girls jerk off upside down.  The story I want to tell is set in China, where I have never been.  This should be clear from my last remark.  The story features a young man who lives in Beijing, who eats noodles occasionally, and who rides a bike to work.  Outside his room, where he sleeps and eats, is a desert of human beings, opposite my desert, which is why I want to write about it, and him, whose name (we’ll anglicize it) is Jack.

Jack’s life is fascinating, but mostly he works in a factory.  Not the one where my laptop was made (that’s in Taiwan), but where my ashtrays were made.  Jack and his colleagues made most of the things in my house.  So I want to make something for them, this story.  But what I really want to make is a space between their desert and mine, which I will call (for lack of a better term) “life” – and my thesis will be that with enough patience, and love, one can survive even this life, which is very hard.


Jack lives in a dormitory.  His roommate is named Cho.  Cho is eating noodles and chafing at the sun.

He says:  “Good morning.”

Jack doesn’t reply.

So Cho offers a question:  “When you think about it, who is she, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

“She’s a girl.”

“That’s right,” Jack snaps.

Cho whistles.  “Dude, it’s not your fault she got sick.  She shouldn’t have eaten that cow.”

“But it was in an airplane hangar, Cho.”

“That’s where the government puts the cows now!”  Cho seems surprised by Jack’s naiveté.

Jack is nonplused, and he is frowning.  Cho carries on eating his noodles.

The sheltered Westerner may already feel a bit lost.  What do cows have to do with airplane hangars?

Before I address this question, let’s look in at the dormitory next door.  Two young women are completing their morning toilet.  Their names are Dolores and Wong.  They work at the same factory as Jack and Cho.  Dolores is throwing up.

“It wasn’t such a bad cow,” she chokes out between heaves.

Wong nods.  She thinks for a moment; then adds:  “Jack’s in love with you.”

There is silence for a while.

“Wong.”  (Puke.)  “Some things are impossible.  We think just the usual things are impossible,” (another pause to vomit) “like jumping over the Great Wall or flying to Bangkok.  These are the physical impossibilities.”  (Retch.)  “But there are others.  They have to do with society and culture and how we imagine that people are looking at us when they’re not.  Jack and me,” (another bit of retching now) “are impossible.”

Wong stares straight ahead.  She pulls Dolores’ hair from her face, so that it won’t get covered with vomit.

“He likes you very much,” she says.

Dolores throws up again, violently, and Wong relents.  She loves her friend and hates to see her suffer.  I should also mention that Dolores and Wong are lesbians, and they make powerful love every night in their dormitory bed.

As Wong wipes the spit from her friend’s pale, shaking lips, it occurs to her that Dolores might be pregnant.


The factory where Jack, Cho, Dolores, and Wong work is filled with flowers.  It’s a beautiful space, with sky-blue posters on the walls and a toilet for every worker.  The employees are paid loads of yuan and they never get tired.

Actually, it’s not like that.  It’s a typical factory.  It is gray, and square, with machines and people wearing hairnets.  Jack works in the area where they make the ashtrays; Dolores does inventory.  Cho drives a forklift; I’m not sure what Wong does.

(Sometimes, since I’m so far out of the game, I wish I still worked with others – if not in a factory, then helping friends move.  There’s something satisfying about the big move, when you rent a Ryder truck and everybody gets pizza at the end.  But that’s not what Jack, Cho, Dolores, and Wong do: they make the things that we pack into the boxes.  There are no moving trucks in Beijing.)

Jack is sorting ashtrays and thinking about Dolores.  If we could read his mind and translate it into English, it would say:  “She loves me; she loves me not.  She loves me; she loves me not.”  And so on.  He repeats these lines to the rhythm of a copper stamping device.  In a few weeks, all these ashtrays will be strewn with cigarette butts.

Jack’s foreman, who watches him work, is Shen.  Shen is a Laozi scholar.  When China went capitalist, he jumped the Great Wall and came to Beijing for the new Dao.  He opened a Chinese restaurant; but he rented his storage room to Communists, for which he was shut down.

Shen spends much of his time trying to convince Jack to go home.  He has become disenchanted with Beijing, so he tries to disenchant Jack, too.  But Jack wants to leave anyway.  He came to Beijing performing an ancient rite (filial blasphemy) and he’s since grown tired of the factory.  He would like to return to his family, but he can’t – to cross a bridge is to burn it – which is why he’s in love with Dolores.  Her body, now, is his home.  He talks about it, as men do about difficult things, in code.

Today’s conversation is about the body politic.

“When you think about it,” Shen says, “the government is like the brain, and the corporation is like the belly.  The one thinks and the other grows.  Both are necessary.”

“But the corporation is corrupting the government,” Jack says.

“That’s to be expected!” Shen replies.  “Nature obliges the belly to expand.”

“You’d just let it grow, then?” Jack asks.

“We live in scarcity,” Shen says.  “The belly gives us a semblance of plenty.”

We’ll leave them to their body-talking code and move to the other side of the factory, where Cho, resplendent in his forklift, is razzing Dolores and Wong.

“Girls,” he says, “You love girls.”

“Why is it,” Dolores responds, “that you’re so fascinated by lesbians?”

“It must have something to do with. . .” Wong trails off, and smiles.

“No, ladies,” Cho says, hopping down from the machine, “it’s your own narcissism coming out.”

“How so?” asks Dolores.

“Every conversation with a woman,” Cho declares, “only returns to herself in the end.”  (He looks over his shoulder, to make sure that his mother, who also works in the factory, isn’t watching.)  “It comes from having children, all that bullshit connected to pregnancy, the uterus and such.  Complex machines need complex maintenance – thus, woman’s fascination with herself.  Our fascination with you, and with lesbianism, is only your own pose turned back on you.”

“Bravo!” cries Jack.  As he approaches, he steals a glance at Dolores, and decides that she’s feeling better.  “But what happens when we men speak about ourselves, too, if only in code?” he asks.  “Is a veneer of abstraction enough to convince an astute observer that we don’t have uteruses?  What do you say, Cho?”

“There are always exceptions,” Cho grunts.

Suddenly, each has a vision of all the others making love.  None of them likes it.  They change the subject.

“Why do men stalk women?” asks Dolores.

Jack starts.  “Is someone stalking you?” he says.

“No,” Dolores replies.  “I’m speaking abstractly.”

There is an awkward silence.  Someone suggests lunch, and they all assent.

On the way to the cafeteria, Wong considers why men stalk women.  She concludes that men don’t seek women primarily for sex, but for an emotional life.  It’s the only way they can have one, as they’ve only been taught to kill other men.  So when they leave their women, they lose their emotional lives.  They have to hunt them back down.

But then Wong remembers everything from the night before: the blood, the cow, the hangar. . . .

Dolores pulls Jack aside.

“Jack,” she says, with a nervous smile, “I have something to tell you.”

“Not now.”



“I think I’m pregnant.”

The next thing he knows, Jack is waking up in the arms of a woman who reminds him of his school nurse.  (In fact, she is his school nurse, who has recently moved to Beijing to be close to him.  But that’s another story.)


(Well, why not.)

Jack’s nurse fell in love with him when he was only twelve.  She followed him to Beijing, hoping that he would buy her a milkshake.  She would drink it, they would return to her room, and what happened next would be up to her.

Needless to say, this nurse – whose name we won’t give, as she’s currently under investigation for events related to the story – does not take kindly to Jack’s girlfriends.

When Jack wakes in her arms, she has different hair than he remembers, and dark glasses.  He’s only able to recognize her – yes, from her teeth, which are perfectly white.

“Puh – Wha – ”  The nurse swoons and passes out.

Jack’s friends grab him and lift him up.

“What happened?” he says.

Dolores puts her hand to her mouth and runs for the bathroom.  Jack remembers.  The retching begins, muffled only by a thin Japanese wall – they have those now in China – and Jack considers his shoes.  Let’s skip this awkward moment (as well as the hasty departure of Jack’s nurse) and move to Dolores’ room, where, later that day, Dolores and Jack are sharing a bowl of noodles.

Jack is wondering how Dolores got pregnant.  He has touched her in certain ways, but they have yet to engage in the act generally considered necessary for procreation.  Neither, presumably, have Dolores and Wong.  So it’s a mystery.

(Not to Dolores, perhaps; she was there.  But she isn’t telling, and Jack isn’t happy.)

4 ½.

A sidebar:  I grew up Catholic.  At every Palm Sunday mass (they happen once a year, before Easter) we reenact the story of Christ’s “passion” (that is, his death), which begins with his birth.  Mary, his mother, is visited by her cousin, Elizabeth, who’s also pregnant.  After a few poetic exclamations about fruit and wombs, we discover – well, we knew it already – it’s a long story – that Mary was knocked up by the Holy Spirit.  You can compare the Buddha’s conception: a divine elephant visits his mother, and the next thing you know, she’s expecting.

So that’s what happened to Dolores: immaculate conception.

Well, not really.

Do you remember the cow?


Airplane hangar C-314 is a large building, and square, much like the factory.  But it has red streamers flying from the roof, and in one corner is a small stage, built of green copper.

It was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II.  The Chinese were retreating from the Japanese, and America wanted to help.  As we always do.  So a retired U.S. Air Force commander, influential with Chiang Kai-Shek, decided to save China.  Through an elaborate process known only to him, a hangar was built in Beijing and a few other cities with small pieces of steel and copper flown with great loss of life over the Hump.

(Look, I should just mention it now:  Dolores isn’t pregnant.)

Later, in the midst of the first great capitalist displacement, hangar C-314 was converted to a homeless shelter.  One of its beneficiaries, a tall peasant from Weichang, brought with him – nobody’s sure how – a Holstein cow.  She was a curious, horizontal creature, and her name was “Needy.”  When Needy’s owner found work, he had to leave her in the hangar.  The remaining peasants did their best to feed her, having little to eat themselves; and she repaid them with milk.

However, with the passing of time, nobody remembered how a cow had gotten into a hangar.  Legends grew up around Needy: that she had been Mao’s cow; that she had wandered in from Outer Mongolia; and – this, from a man who called himself “Xunzi” – that she was the incarnation of Mohammed.

Finally, a religion established itself.  A stage was built, prayers were intoned, and gold dust was consumed on a semi-daily basis.  (The dust wasn’t made of real gold, but by a factory that made gold stars, the kind you get in American grade schools.)  Needy was rechristened “Cow,” and life went on.

Now I want to return to Jack and Dolores eating noodles, talking about her supposed pregnancy.  They’re halfway through the first bowl and Dolores is already feeling ill.

“Why can’t you tell me whose child it is?” Jack asks.

“Because I can’t,” she says.

“Why not?  Were you raped?”


“Then what happened to the cow?”  Jack tries a new tack.

“I don’t know.”  Dolores is stirring her noodles, and suffering.  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Women are difficult to debrief.  They won’t tell you something just because you want them to, just like they won’t open their legs just because you’re hard.  There are a million pop songs about it.

“Please.  I want to know what happened.”  Jack has reached the pleading stage.

Then suddenly, and typically, he gets angry.  “I mean . . . !” (he begins obviously) “what if the kid’s mine?  Do you expect me to feel nothing?”

But he remembers that the kid can’t possibly be his.  He’s never had sex.  Jack is a virgin.  Dolores looks up with this damning bit of information in mind, and Jack begins to feel stupid.  It makes him even angrier.


And he’s off.  Back to the men’s dormitory.  Dolores watches him leave and returns to stirring her noodles.

If we could get inside Dolores’ head and translate what she’s thinking into English, it would be:  “Yes, he used to love me, but he won’t now.  Yes, he may love me now, but he didn’t before.”  Over and over, round and round.  Jack is a soldier, marching to battle.  Dolores is a young girl, waving a handkerchief.  Her glass of lemonade has spilled, making a brief wet spot in the road, like love.

She thinks: if a man’s survival is drawn from scarcity and war, then a woman’s survival, my survival, is more tangible – a survival in the midst of fullness.  My belly will soon become too much for me (Dolores still thinks she’s pregnant; she missed a pill recently and had sex the same day; plus all the vomiting), yet I will be compelled to live.  If Jack must live and die for me, then, I must live and die for myself, and for my own expanding inner life – my belly.  I must grow, and fuck; then fall, like a ripe fruit.

And she calms herself thus, stirring.

There is a preemptive knock on the door.  Wong enters.

“How are you?” she asks, carefully.

“I’m fine,” Dolores answers.  She winces in pain.  “Jack’s a bit bent out of shape, though.”

Wong sits.  “You might be pregnant,” she says.

“Yes.  I missed a pill.”


“Who were you sleeping with?”  The solicitude has dropped from Wong’s voice.

“Nobody,” Dolores replies.

“Nobody special,” she adds after a moment.

A few days earlier, Dolores discovered Shen in the factory warehouse, reading a copy of The Wealth of Nations.  He looked very sweet just then, and sad; he was watching a whole world fall apart.  He had a silly mustache, too.  Jack’s love was serious and Dolores rebelled against it.  So judge her if you want, but she had a wonderful orgasm, and she liked how Shen’s fingers moved inside her – faintly, like a tiny feather swirling.

Dolores doesn’t mention any of these details, but Wong reads them in her face.  She has long since forgiven Dolores her desires; what makes a person a great lesbian lover also makes her a great lover, period.  Hormones don’t know the meaning of limitation; their only limitation is reproduction.  And soon your belly will be so big, Wong reflects (not without resentment), that you won’t be able to see your own cunt.  Then you’ll be finite, like me.  Your immensity will be your mortality.

“Should we talk about what happened last night?” she asks, finally.

“I guess so,” Dolores replies.  “If you want to.”

They begin to recount the events from the night before.  And this is where I’d like to caution you against high expectations.  In Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragedians should not only complicate, but resolve.  My training is as an academic, so I’m better at posing questions than answering them.  There will be no grand denouement.  There will be an ending though, and it will come soon, perhaps sooner than you’d like.

But first may I mention something?


I would like to be rich and famous.

I was born in New Haven, Missouri.  My middle-class family was sure that I would be rich and famous, due to my high grades in school.  They sent me to a college called “The Harvard of the Midwest.”  I’d never met anyone from Harvard.

So now, when I write a decent line of prose, I immediately start imagining how famous I will be, and the next line sucks.  Bob Dylan said of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that every line is the first line of a song.  I’d like to write a book like that, where every line is the first line of a book.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – then, immediately:  “So call me Ishmael.”  Ishmael would be a deer hunter living in western Missouri; he would order eggs and waffles, and his waitress, who would be wearing a white top, would say:  “Every happy family is the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Then she would leave a pad of butter.  The book would go on like that, forever and ever, except that all the lines would be mine, so that I couldn’t be sued for copyright infringement.

So if you know someone who works for a literary agent – and this is the point of my detour – please tell him or her about my story, “The Church in the Next Town Over.”  It would solve a lot of problems for me.

Back to it, then.

Dolores and Wong remember: they are walking through Beijing, arm in arm.  They have heard of a homeless shelter in the suburbs.  Space is hard to find in Beijing, especially for lovemaking, so they board a subway and pack two blankets and a pillow.  They won’t be sleeping.

But riding in the same subway car the same evening is Jack’s nurse.

(Strains of creepy chords.)

And she’s headed for the same place.

(Three minor keys.)

So that what’s coming will be more plausible, it’s important to know that Jack’s nurse is mentally unstable.  As a child, she was sprayed with DDT, and since then, she’s been losing it.  In fact, she trained as a nurse from the vague sense that she not only had to save others, but also herself.

So you can imagine how much it upsets her to see Dolores and Wong.  The young women speak in whispers.

“Ssh sssh psh,” says Dolores.

“Ssh pshsh ssph,” replies Wong.

(Chinese people also whisper.  Like us, they can’t be understood properly, so it’s kind of annoying.)

The nurse gets angry.

“What a whore!” the nurse thinks.  “She has Jack’s love, and now this girl’s, too!”  She considers the failure of justice; then her gray coat, which has a missing tassel at the hem.

The subway comes to a stop.  The riders exit and climb to the street.  The hangar rises in the distance like a pleasure dome.

The streets of this distant suburb of Beijing, rarely visited by Western tourists, are a menagerie of oddities: giraffes, I Chings, used Cuisinarts, banana peels, gemstones, and green wrenches.  Everything is for sale.  Everything was made in China.  So there’s no need to ask, as a left-leaning Westerner might, whether a particular pair of sunglasses was made in a sweatshop.  Everything was made in a sweatshop.  So also, the people feel no guilt when they buy something.  They are all self-supporting, free, because they’re all wage slaves.  It’s a utopia.

Jack, meanwhile, is standing on a street corner in another part of the city, watching the newer cars pass by.  He is daydreaming of Mozi, the philosopher of universal love.  Jack says:

“. . . so you can’t love everyone,” concluding an argument he didn’t make.

“In every woman,” Mozi begins again, sagely and somewhat arrogantly, “there is something to love: an ear, a nose, or a wandering thumb.”

“But I only love Dolores,” Jack says.

“Then you’re a fool.”

Jack gets angry.  Why does the libidinal economy run on scarcity – namely, the scarcity of available women?  Why do women have their own desires?  And why can’t I get laid?

The questions startle him awake.  He looks around, but no one is watching.  He sees a number of drunks walking sideways, singing with bravado.  He shifts his weight and falls back into reverie.

Dolores and Wong enter the hangar.  The nurse follows them. 

The hangar is mostly empty, but at one end is a small stage, made of copper.  A Holstein cow stands on it.  She has a small bell hanging from her neck.  Seven peasants are worshiping her, raising and lowering their arms, speaking in tongues, that sort of thing.  One of them is eating a bag of microwave popcorn.  (A large, oily microwave stands in the corner, near an old Honda generator.)

“Weird scene,” Wong comments.

Oui,” Dolores agrees.

But even as they joke, a feeling of serenity passes over them.  It emanates from the wide dumb eyes of the cow.  She stares, chewing mouthfuls of microwave popcorn – a small pink bucket of it has been placed by her head for that purpose – and she sways imperceptibly, ringing her bell.  It sounds an austere rhythm, a mixture of marching feet and waving handkerchiefs.  Then she farts.

6 ½.

I would like to interrupt again, to answer a question posed by an earlier reader of the manuscript.

Why a cow?

Cows are sacred beings where I come from.  Nearly three times a week, I consume a cow in the form of a “patty.”  My consummation is part of a ritual that begins with a friendly greeting, involves varying amounts of reassurance and intimacy, and ends with a spirited farewell.  Above me, images of my culture’s deities, projected into flat, empty boxes, keep lonely men from suicide.

(The Chinese do the same thing, except they cut up the cow in little pieces.)


An older woman, perhaps fifty or fifty-five, emerges from behind Dolores and Wong, wearing a cheap gray coat.  She approaches the stage, kneels before it, and prays.  Jack’s nurse has come for this; she is aware of her failing sanity and has come to ask for it back.  Five minutes go by, maybe five hours.  Dolores and Wong are entranced.  The bell continues to ring, regularly, softly, like a church in the next town over.

Suddenly the hangar is torn with a scream.  The nurse has lunged at the cow and pressed her face against its snout.  The worshipers are aghast.  They leap onto the stage, grab the nurse, and shove her off the stage.

Dolores and Wong, aroused from their stupor, rush to help.  They manage to get between the nurse and her assailants, if only for a moment.

“You stupid bitches!” the nurse screams.  It’s not clear who she’s talking to.

The devotees renew the attack, clawing their way past Dolores and Wong.  They have the same desperate look in their eyes that the nurse has in hers.  It is war, and DDT, and communism, and capitalism, and the disappointments of love and life – all of it contorted with hunger, like a rail-thin guru.

The nurse pulls a knife.  The peasants do not stop.

Suddenly the cow cries a loud, terrible moan.  It throws the peasants to their knees.

When they look up, they see a small rat nibbling popcorn at the cow’s feet.  The peasants recover and move to attack the rat, but he scurries away.  He is a rat of peace.  He has his own year on the Chinese calendar.  We will never go to war with China, even over Taiwan, because every Chinese restaurant in America has a placemat with this rat’s picture on it.  But as the peasants watch him go, they feel robbed, like the fight they’ve been longing for has been taken from them again.

Jack’s nurse has meanwhile left the hangar, and Dolores and Wong have collapsed in exhaustion.  They watch the cow.  The peasants are trying to calm her, whispering loving phrases, ringing the bell, caressing her.  She is shaking with cold, and fear.

It’s a weird scene.


After the trauma in the hangar, Dolores and Wong feel as if they could eat the world.  So they leave quietly and take a bus to a Western-style restaurant.  Wong orders chicken nuggets, and Dolores, a hamburger.  As they sit down to eat, Dolores doesn’t realize that her hamburger is tainted and will make her puke convulsively for the next twenty-four hours.

“Fullness and scarcity,” she says, taking a hefty bite of it.

“What do you mean?” Wong asks.

“I’m not sure,” she says, swallowing.  “But in the situation of scarcity, there’s only war.  The peasants have the cow, but that’s plentitude, isn’t it?”

“I don’t follow you,” Wong says.

Dolores takes another bite.  “This is what I mean.  The world has been set up with a logic of scarcity, a Hobbesian logic.  The men have drawn lines around everything.  But we live in plentitude – all of us, not just women.  We have to, since that’s how children get made.  If we don’t have it, the plentitude, we manufacture it.  That’s what’s happening in the hangar.  And it’s what we do, too, in the factory.”

“So this applies to us.  To me and you.”  Wong suddenly feels angry.

“Yes,” Dolores says, quietly.

“But good sex is scarce.  Love is scarce,” objects Wong.

Dolores hesitates.  “Yes, it is,” she says.  “But life’s too hard without it – fullness, I mean – so we have to share it all, everything.  And forgive.”

Wong stirs her milkshake. 

“What about the woman in the gray coat?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

As Wong continues to stir, the image melts into the next day, where the two friends are eating noodles in their dormitory room.  A yellow lampshade dims the room and colors the walls a dull beige.  The windows have the night.

Seeing that Wong and Dolores have finished talking, Jack reenters.

“I’m sorry, D.,” he says.

Dolores motions towards the table.  “Have some noodles,” she says.

They talk: Wong first; then Dolores; then Jack feels safe enough to join them.  They talk about America, where the people walk upside down and the girls never masturbate for fear of failure.  They talk about Adam Smith, and Karl Marx, and hot lesbian sex.  They agree that they will fly to Bangkok someday for a box of Thai food. 

These three young people – what do they know?  What can they say?  So many things are impossible, and not just the physical things.  But I can’t tarry with them any longer, because if I do, I will make them – including Cho, who has just joined them – unhappy.  Because I am unhappy.

But as Beijing fades, my desert returns.  A thousand flowers bloom, scentlessly.  The trees are cast in stone, bound by walls built in scarcer times – so the men tell us – to make good neighbors.  Someday I will jump them and find the new Dao.

So please tell your friends about my story, “The Church in the Next Town Over.”  It’s terrible to write something that nobody reads.

Craig Greenman teaches philosophy as Assistant Professor of Humanities at Colby-Sawyer College.  His fiction appears, or will soon appear, in Pear Noir! and PANK.  His story, “Pygmalion, Again,” has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He has also published various academic articles and a book, Expression and Survival: An Aesthetic Approach to the Problem of Suicide.  He attended graduate school at Loyola University Chicago.

To read Craig Greenman’s comments on Alan Barstow’s “Imprisoned with the Dead,” click here.

Notes from Chad Peterson, Associate Editor
“The Church in the Next Town Over” is one of those stories that really grabbed me right from the jump, and never let go. The digressive, self-aware voice of our narrator gave the story its own unique, somewhat peculiar ramble, and through the first paragraphs and pages of the story it felt as though it was going to make for a quick and light (if enjoyable) read. There are, however, pockets of this piece in which you can lose yourself—poetic phrasings, insightful observations and quite a lot of wonderfully odd moments. Somehow, Greenman has managed to make all of those disparate elements mesh. In the end, it made for an intricate, surprising and extremely entertaining read. Put me down as a fan.

Comments on this story by Thania Rios, author of “The Lost Art of the Horror Story
In “The Church in the Next Town Over,” Craig Greenman begins by putting the reader in an undeniable position of power: “One worries about a confessional tone right off the bat,” he says. When paired with the title, the reader is led to perceive himself as a man of God, the only one capable of bestowing the absolution that both the characters and their creator require. The ending falls in line with this interpretation, the last line being a direct appeal to the reader—“So please tell your friends about my story, ‘The Church in the Next Town Over.’ It’s terrible to write something that nobody reads”—but the body of the text is nothing if not mocking, teasing the reader, supposedly so powerful, for needing the author’s help in navigating the story.

In many ways, “The Church in the Next Town Over” is as much about the contentious relationship between reader and writer as it is about the drama unfolding between Jack, Dolores, Wong, Shen, and Jack’s nurse. Like the characters, the spectator and the artist need each other, but aren’t sure if they can entirely trust one another: the artist must soothe and seduce the reader if he expects him to read the story, and the reader must be accepting of his alternating power and ignorance before he can understand it. Whether or not such a balance can be struck is left up in the air, but Greenman’s crafty, melodious tone and Dolores’s final words—“so we have to share it all, everything”—bode well.

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