Citrus County (Part 2) by John Brandon (The Rumpus Book Club)

Part 2 of Citrus County sees Shelby fully embracing the toughness granted her by her tragedy, Toby continually offering pithy pieces of 8th-grade profundity, and Mr. Hibma, like his student Toby, acting foolishly out of loneliness.

If there’s a theme constant throughout Part 2, it’s that of secrecy. Opening with a description of Mr. Hibma’s masturbatory habits, Part 2 involves the still-untold story of Toby’s parents, Mr. Register’s heartbreaking confession (“I almost left your mom,” he said. “And you” (100)), and Shelby and Aunt Dale’s secret correspondence. Some secrets, like Mr. Register’s admission of lovelessness, find their way into the ears, heart, and mind of another, while most others remain hidden away, suppressed, known only to their keepers.

John Brandon

Brandon’s focus on secrecy is appropriate, as Kaley remains kept in Toby’s bunker, alive and well enough to be a financial, physical, and mental burden for her kidnapper. Toby’s feelings about Kaley, in conjunction with his feelings for her sister, Shelby, are much like those of an 8th-grader’s about many things; utterly confused and conflicted:

“Toby pressed his hand against the mirror’s glass, leaving a print. He couldn’t look at his face. His face was full of guilt and weakness, and abandoning Kaley would require more strength than taking her had, more strength than keeping her. Toby was unworthy. He had to get control of his mind. He was being a crybaby because his evil wasn’t spoon-feeding him instructions every two minutes. He had to listen harder. He had to feel his instincts. He couldn’t, though. All he could feel was what the future might be like” (141).

At the end of Part 1, Toby found himself striving for normalcy. He spends much of Part 2, also, trying to be a regular, unexceptional boy (track meets; having not a “girlfriend,” but certainly a friend/romantic figure in his life), a fruitless endeavor for someone keeping a four-year-old stashed in a bunker in the woods. Even without his criminal secret, Toby would fail in his attempt at “normalcy,” because, if normal exists, it’s not something you try for. The idea of “being normal” sort of denies effort. It’s not what you try to be, it’s what you just are.

One of the reasons Toby and Shelby’s relationship works so well, on the page, is because she, too, desperately, wants nothing more than to be a normal kid in Citrus County. She doesn’t want people, kids and adults, to walk on egg-shells around her, fearful that they’ll offend if they give her un-specialized treatment. No matter how ridiculously she acts out, though, nobody gives her the discipline that she feels she deserves, and needs. This is most apparent after she faces no punishment for stapling a flag reading “LICENSED HANDJOB ACCEPTANCE STATION” to the front doors of Central Citrus Baptist Church:

“Maybe discipline did not suit Shelby and everyone knew this but her. Maybe getting in trouble was a poor goal for her. The cops and the church people knew it, and that’s why Shelby had heard nothing about her flag. The incident had been covered up” (126).

Mr. Hibma, as well, realizes in Part 2 that he wants to be “normal,” a “regular teacher” (127). He spends much of Part 2 trying to change himself, sending Mrs. Conner an apology card and carnation, hosting wing meetings, coaching a winning girl’s basketball team. At Part 2’s end, though, Mr. Hibma seems to be reverting to his old ways (“He’d conned himself with this plan to mold himself into a real middle school teacher, a monitor, a mentor, and he’d fallen for it… He’d been trying to make things easier on himself, as if they ever could be” (153)). Tellingly, this reversion was hinted at by two women whom Mr. Hibma spoke with in the drug store, while shopping for Mrs. Conner’s card:

“What’d you do wrong?” one of them asked.

“Nothing specific,” said Mr. Hibma. “I was being myself.”

“You should never apologize for being yourself. I learned that after I got divorced,” said the second woman. She had bags of flavored coffee clutched to her chest.

“Doesn’t that depend on what kind of self you have?” Mr. Hibma said. “What if your self has something wrong with it?”

“People don’t change. They try to but they can’t. That’s speaking from experience.”

“You’re probably right. I probably won’t change” (129).

It looks like Mr. Hibma couldn’t change. Can Toby? Can Shelby? Are they granted the right to change because of their young age? Or is that just called “growing up”?

Stray Observations:

  • Top Three Toby’isms:

“I guess I’m a pessimist now,” she said. “My dad says he hates pessimists.”

“You can call yourself whatever you want,” Toby said. “The same things are going to happen to you… Especially the bad things” (102).

“I’ve never seen much reward to friendship,” he said. “Starts as an interview and ends as a job” (134).

“… or whether she’s just under a good, old-fashioned bad influence. I’m wondering if someone’s taking advantage of her while she’s going through a rough time.”

“Everyone gets taken advantage of,” Toby said (139).

  • Shelby and Toby each, in the company of an adult, engage in a minor illegal activity. Shelby’s dad offers her a beer, which she accepts but doesn’t finish, and Toby smokes a clove cigarette, which he starts but doesn’t finish, with his Uncle Neal.
  • John Brandon, if you’re reading this, thank you for this paragraph:

“Shelby imagined walking around in the summertime and seeing her breath, the billboards in an unimaginable language she would never try to learn, every meal centered on fresh fish, every cabinet full of vodka. The sun setting at eleven at night. She imagined flying in a jet, and acting like she did it all the time. Shelby would point at menus. She would have the best guide. She would stay in the best part of the city, in an apartment whose balcony probably looked out over the morning bustling of shopkeepers” (122).

  • Will the Aunt Dale/Shelby and the Aunt Dale/Mr. Hibma plots converge? I’d like it if they did.
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