They tell me I was born in Illinois, only an hour’s drive from where I live now. The hospital where I was born has been demolished, along with the building where I slept in a laundry basket in an apartment my mother insists was haunted. I have no memory of the Illinois of my childhood, and I moved here two years ago, as one moves to a place that one has never seen before. For the first time in my life, when someone asks where I’m from, I can say, “I was born here.” When I first drove into town, the porches were shockingly familiar; I was certain I recognized the patterns in the leaves of the oldest trees. I am only telling you this because perhaps it will make you inclined to believe me.
This town was the site of a series of Illinwek Confederation burial grounds. Former Native American residents believed that the landscape was particularly accessible to the realms of the dead. Later, the settlers buried their own dead, hundreds and hundreds, in unmarked graves. Whatever the explanation, the truth is that if you are digging—a garden, a foundation—you may suddenly find yourself contemplating a skull or a femur. You may find yourself knee-deep in black dirt, face-to-face with the bones of your ancestors.
To survive in a place, a traveler or newcomer must understand its mythology. Illinois rustles with tales of Abe Lincoln and cornfields, of deep-dish pizza and horseshoe sandwiches. Such toothless myths lack the grit of our small town, but I will tell you what I can about the stories of this place. I will do my best to value your survival.
You will meet many who have lived in this town for most of their lives. If you ask, they may speak enigmatically about old businesses and industries, about a certain hamburger stand, a certain housing development that was once a soybean field. They may not answer your questions at all. If you listen, if you make yourself as unnoticeable as possible, they may forget about you and discuss among themselves, as if in code, the parlor in a certain mansion, the peeling paint on a particular set of shutters. You will hear them laugh. Do not draw attention to yourself by pretending to laugh along.
It doesn’t matter what they are carrying or where they are going, only that they slide through the town like great, endless serpents. Their bodies slither and hiss on the rails, and their patterned scales, the segmented boxcars, surround the town in a coiled knot of commerce. The sounds of them, the rattles and whistles, hover perpetually in the distance, and they are always whizzing past, clattering over, rumbling under. The rare glimpse of a head or a tail, an engine or a caboose, feels like magic, like an invitation to make a wish.
Perhaps you will decide you would like to stay. Perhaps you have reached a point in life where you are considering responsibility and commitment. Perhaps the word “forever,” has begun to seem less intimidating. There are many beautiful and capable homes to choose from. Streets bristle with placards from realtors, and the signs proffering phone numbers and faded photographs creak and protest in the wind. Doorknobs decorated with key boxes and cheerful, plastic flowers beckon to you, competing with the properties across the street and next door. Don’t be intimidated by the winking signs, by the alluring promises: “A Real Steal!” It’s true; they are talking to you.
When you descend into your basement and find the camel crickets—rickety, gigantic, with limbs like robotic appendages—expect that they will leap toward your face. Expect them to try to scare you, to deter you from your drying rack with all of your evaporating clothes, from the dusty foosball table, from the home-brew kit waiting to be sterilized. Expect the insects to take ownership of all the things you’ve forgotten in darkness.
Do not be dismayed when you hear shouts in the parking lot at the grocery store or the library, when you look out through your windshield and see someone running and waving, racing toward your car as if it’s in danger of exploding. In the end, she will only ask you for money. Do not be dismayed when she peers through your windows, when she spies the parking meter change glimmering on the floor and asks for it by name.
“I can’t help it,” someone told me once. “Whenever I’m in the park, I find myself searching for dead bodies.”
Some believe that a part of this town has never left the 1950s. Somewhere, across town, backroom deals are being made by men in wide ties and collared shirts with their sleeves rolled to their forearms. Somewhere, the wealthy, the bankers and lawyers, offer secret handshakes and call their secretaries “kid.” Somewhere a perpetual hors d’oeuvres party is taking place, where women with fruit-patterned aprons and bouffanted hair serve up ham loaf and Jell-O molds, deviled eggs and casseroles sprinkled with crushed potato chips. If you look carefully enough, all parties carry allusions to this one secret gathering. At some point, among the Doritos commercials and the Super Bowl touchdowns, among the drama and glamour of the Oscars, you will find yourself holding a stuffed mushroom to your lips, and you will recognize it as a coded statement. You will look around the room and wonder who it is, who among you holds access to the town’s secret, beating heart.
If you have never made peace with the wind, you have never made peace. The wind here does not breeze or brush, is neither stroking nor gentle. Here, the wind is a forceful, shoving, angry thing. It will push you down, will steal your belongings, will threaten you with the reek of soy and agriculture. It will make all ordinary things difficult. If you honor any god, let it be the wind god. If you risk any prayers, avoid the clichéd hope for the wind to “always be at your back.” Instead, pray that when the wind buffets you, when it pummels you, that it will notice your presence, that it will consider you, you with your small voice, your insignificant hands.
Once, a few years ago, after stabbing several people who were dear to him, an intoxicated man climbed the rusty fence around the public pool and drowned in the blue-lit water. Now, on summer days, the pool echoes with shrieks and splashes, and even the smell of the chlorine, the tang of a popsicle, is not enough to keep swimmers from wondering about the particular tinge to the body when it was found in the morning. We spend summer afternoons imagining the stabbings, although they happened across town, picturing them taking place on the scrubbed blue tile, blood like flowers in the water.
Perhaps you prefer a bit more subtlety in your promises; perhaps you hold a particular passion for the chase. For you, there are the quietly vacant properties, unadvertised but empty, requiring observation and persistence. Look for the windows in perpetual shadow, for the porches that huddle for weeks under pristine blankets of snow. If you are brave, you can investigate the mailboxes, can look for the red square of painters tape, the secret signal postal carriers use to mark the unattached.
In summer, the 13-year cicadas will fall on you at the swimming pool. They will land on your browning skin, your soft belly. If you are foolish, you will shriek and beat them away. You will forget children are watching, and even the smallest ones will recognize their power, will gather up insects and chase you. If you are wise, you will swallow your fear, will drive straight on the causeway, even when the cicadas slip into the car through the air conditioning vents and scrabble across your sandaled feet. While walking, you will not run into the street when insects fall from the trees, flashing red-eyes and clawing your hair with tiny black legs. In the end, if you are worthy, you will outlive them.
Do not grow dismayed if it seems all doors are closed to you. Search among the alleyways for a pickup truck parked among a stand of daffodils. Beyond the overflowing garbage cans and the rusted bicycle, you will see a small door, permanently ajar. Inside, you will see thin shadows, tattered cardboard covered in dust and dirt. That door will never be closed, not in summer, not in winter. Perhaps the shadows and the dust will hold little interest for you, but one cannot be picky when seeking refuge.
When the trains come, it is easy enough to avoid waiting. It is easy enough to make a u-turn and a beeline for an underpass. If you choose to wait, if you choose to practice your Zen-like commitment to honoring all moments, be prepared for the train to slow down as you watch it, until it runs at barely a crawl, until the cars pass with such careful speed that you begin to imagine leaping aboard, riding the rails like a hobo. Be prepared for the train to stop entirely, for it to pause, a trembling, breathing thing on the rails beyond the flimsy flashing barricade. Be prepared, also, for it to reverse its direction, to return slowly, slowly from where it has come. In other words, do not be surprised when you are tested.
“Are you prejudiced against black people?” he will ask without introduction in the middle of the sidewalk, in the green of the cemetery, in the soda aisle of the grocery store. He may wait for your answer, or he may simply begin praying, reaching out to take your hand between his cool, dry palms. He may tell a story about cancer and his family, about eviction and fire and unexpected tragedy. He may simply ask for five dollars, or request a ham and cheese sandwich. Whether you’ve given or not, he will not remember your name or your face, will not remember your answer, or the times he’s met you before.
On the corner, near the hill with the mansions, a two-story house hides in its jungle. In the driveway, an old minivan rusts on four flat tires. The yard crawls with poison ivy, broken flowerpots, and tangled vines. The yellow condemned sign seems redundant; the sagging porch, the gaping windows, the warped front door with its discolored wreath exude neglect and disintegration. Tree roots burrow into the cracked foundation; snakes and raccoons hibernate in the basement and attic. Every spring, like magic, flats of flowers and bags of potting soil appear in the yard. Shiny new trowels and spades gleam among the deep green weeds. Gradually, the young plants wither and brown in their black, plastic compartments. Rain seeps into the potting soil and turns it to mud. The garden tools rust and flake their paint. By late summer, the garden has absorbed the offerings. Grass and weeds rise in tangled mounds over someone’s high hopes, over these, the smallest dreams.
It is easy to believe that Civil Rights have never arrived here, and that though there are no explicit signs, secret laws exist to keep the town separate but equal. Whatever your race, it is possible to believe that certain banks and certain supermarkets, certain blocks and sections of town, are off limits to you, and that you are not welcome there. Like any brave soul, you will test these boundaries, will feel your breath quicken as you enter a certain hair salon, a certain butcher shop. Each time you will delight in the realization that your fears are unfounded; no one will glare at you or tell you that you don’t belong. Don’t underestimate the heady feeling of relief. Reassurance is as addictive as any sharper poison.
Each year, like an offering, someone dies in the lake. After suicides, drownings, accidents, homicides, police string up yellow tape and begin dredging the water. These deaths deter no one from powering up the motorboats, from gathering up the kids and the inner tubes, the beer and the sunscreen. We are used to our fireworks on the Fourth of July, blooming as bright in the water as they do in the sky. For those of us that eye the lake with wariness, who tell stories of agricultural runoff, diseases and parasites, danger comes to us through the silver of our faucets. We sense its presence, but delight in the water pressure, appreciate the way the steam accentuates the scents of our moisturizing soaps, complements the rich lather of our herbal shampoos.
But maybe you are desperate, gritty, discouraged. Maybe your car is hobbled by flat tires, by expired registration, an empty gasoline tank. Maybe you are hungry, and your thin shoulder blades poke at the frayed fabric of your shirt. For you, I recommend the signs of the condemned, the fluorescent notices that flash as bright as neon. Look for them among the rotting wood awnings, among windows gaping and broken. Whoever you are, we have a corner full of cobwebs for you.
Expect the mosquitoes, wasps, and midges. Expect June bugs, caterpillars, maggots, and termites. Expect to swat and scratch and itch and grumble. Expect that you will swallow them. Expect that they will kamikaze themselves into the tender gelatin of your eyes. Expect, too, that at least once every summer, you will step at twilight into a clearing, and werelight will surround you. Expect the blinking, glowing, flashing fireflies to serenade you with their constellations. Expect to feel as if you’ve been forgiven.
If boredom beckons, if emptiness, disrepair, and desperation begin to weigh on you, it is always best to drive to the factories. Several sprawl on the edge of town, silver and steaming, large enough to be seen from the highway. At night, the lights from the silos and the safety valves spread like sunshine over the town. Distance renders the barbed wire invisible. Beyond the cornfields, the lights strobe and flicker like a disco, the silver smokestacks like decorations for a party. The smoke billows and bustles like people dancing, like a booming bass beat, the press and push of crowded bodies. It beckons you, this crazy crush of steel and fuel, this rickety mess of steam and production. From across the empty fields, it offers adventure and hope. It holds up your future, a gleaming promise before you.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to get used to is the tendency for things to disappear. The businesses fade away into empty storefronts. Families move, and houses mellow into broken windows and leaf-strewn driveways. Offices, too, grow empty and dark, the nameplates honoring people we no longer remember. Friends live in hotel rooms, half-packed suitcases shoved under their beds. Jobs dry up and the people who conducted them whisper away, become digital people, Facebook feeds from other cities. For those of us that remain, unspoken plans of escape hover like drizzle in the air, like fantastical dreams, implausible and unattainable. Each of us flickers with a constant threat of dissolution. In a landscape so flat, the horizon is an infinity of vanishing points. In the end, I believe you will be grateful for our power to perceive another’s passing. You will never be seen more clearly, as here, in our town, as you walk away.