Welcome to South Branch, a made-up town in Southeastern Iowa, which stands in here for many midwestern small towns: charming, friendly, proud, and with a comfortable aura of remembered history and a pleasant patina of deferred maintenance. The older men meet in the mornings at Pearl’s Downtown Diner to discuss the state of the world, the price of soybeans, the superiority of older cars they can fix themselves, the revisionist history of their romantic exploits from sixty years ago, and to complain about “kids today,” just like their fathers did sixty years ago. There’s a sense of community, a slow pace, and a thin veneer of prudence and prudery. People who live here, within the embrace of a horseshoe bend in the South Branch of Mosquito Creek (which the locals call “Skeeter Crick”), love the place, even though they agree it used to be better in nearly every way back when they were twenty.
Like any human settlement, South Branch has its share of secrets, desires, and incidents that most participants hope will not become common knowledge, and, like most secrets, these, or some incomplete, incorrect, minimized, or exaggerated version of them, quickly become part of the town’s breaking news. These secrets fade into vague memory fragments over time as fresh gossip becomes the entertainment of the day. In spite of the whispers and raised eyebrows, the hearers of these stories divide themselves, somewhat randomly, into those who are inwardly horrified by what they’ve heard, and those who are inwardly envious of the miscreants. Sometimes these responses do battle in the same person.
Even though the South Branch Sentinel comes out every week, the most interesting news in South Branch travels faster than the boys and girls on their bicycles who deliver the paper. If a young lady is smoking in the alley behind the hardware store, dad will know about it before she gets home, whereupon he’ll light up a cigarette and admonish her against the practice. Part of the attraction of these small towns is that everyone knows, or at least suspects, even the most discrete indiscretion on the part of their neighbors; that’s also what some people find repulsive about these places. Every nuance of scandal wafts over South Branch, enlivening the conversation at Pearl’s, the gossip at Claire’s Hair Affair, the tipsy talk at Rosalie’s Palm, and even, or especially, the whispered revelations at Reverend Goode’s “Salivation [sic] Station.”
What follows is a collection of short stories, completely made up, I hasten to say. Most of these stories center on particular people and places, along with a talented supporting cast. A word of caution for those who have read the earlier South Branch stories about Tilly and Elmer – you should know that Tilly and Elmer, fans of frisky fun as they are, find some of the shady characters and events in this book scandalous and shocking! Until they read this book, they had never thought of, much less engaged in, any of the more outrageous undertakings of their neighbors. Nevertheless, you can be sure everyone in these stories is enjoying him or herself, and no characters were harmed in the writing of these tales!