“I felt like this on my way home,
I’m not scared…”
—Foo Fighters, ‘New Way Home,’ The Colour and the Shape (1997)
As I drive south down Highway 64, the ghosts get harder and harder to ignore. Somewhere in the past, I had every inch of this highway memorized. Old red barns and giant sycamores so burned into my sub-consciousness that I could navigate the whole stretch of road without ever opening my eyes, but that’s all changed now. Everything seems distant and fuzzy, the lines blurred.
Though I only finished a handful of classes at Whitehaven, I learned a few things in my time there. One of those was the concept of jamais vu. I probably remember the class more than anything because of the professor, a squat little bearded off of a man prone to wild gesticulations and loud outbursts. He also had the strange habit of completely losing his train of thought every time he sneezed. The simplest sniffle would drop him into a fog of uncertainty, and he’d have to check the notes in the front row to rediscover his place in the lecture.
In any case, he started off the lecture discussing déjà vu, a phenomenon which we all understood quite well. He explained the strange firing of neurons and weird intersections of memory deep within our cerebral cortex that caused the uneasy feeling. Like me, most of the class had drifted away into a state of semi-consciousness, barely listening to the professor droll on, when his tone suddenly changed.
With surprising dexterity, he hopped up on a table and began wildly throwing his arms about. “Oh,” he screamed, his voice cracking at an almost maniacal pitch, “I guess you all know everything already, right?” Though we were all a bit frightened by this unhinged little leprechaun of a man, it was hard to argue that he had gained our attention.
He went on to demand an explanation of jamais vu from the class. When no one could offer a satisfactory answer he strutted about the room, basking in the glow of his intellectual superiority. As he explained it, jamais vu is a type of counterbalance to déjà vu—an opposite sensation. Jamais vu is the sense that a situation seems completely foreign, or unfamiliar, even though we logically know that we’ve been to this place, or experienced these exact circumstances, before.
I could think of a hundred different times that I had experienced déjà vu, but not a single instance of jamais vu. If there is one thing that defines life in a small town, it is familiarity. Everything in a small town is overtly familiar. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and the days are marked by a steadfast monotony. As I tried to contemplate the idea of jamais vu, I realized that nothing in Culver County had ever felt foreign or surprising.
As I follow Highway 64, around the s-curves just north of town, I finally understand what that crazy old bastard was talking about. Though I know that I’ve experienced this place intimately, and I can recall driving along this highway thousands of times, it all seems foreign. Not necessarily unfamiliar, but alien and strange nonetheless.
I stop on the large gravel shoulder at the top of Baird’s Bluff and get out of the truck, leaning against the guardrail and peering down into the valley below. As I lean over the rail, a stabbing pain wells up in my chest, and my breathing feels shallow. It’s a sensation I’ve felt off and on for years. I’m fairly certain that a doctor would call them panic attacks, but I don’t know for sure. Since Tommy’s death, I’ve avoided doctors like the plague.
I focus on leveling out my breathing, taking deep, full gulps of air.
I can taste the first wisps of winter cold floating through the valley. Although most of the trees have yet to give up their leaves, it won’t be long before autumn gives way to the hard freeze of winter, the edges of the river icing over, despite the strong current.
I look down towards the bridge, where the river runs south and bends to the west. Over the tops of the trees, I can see the tips of the Golden Eagle Bridge. In another twenty minutes, the halogen lamps of the bridge will kick on, drowning the valley in a dull, orange glow. Even from the top of Baird’s Bluff, you can see the stale orange light, radiating out for miles.
For now, though, the sun is still casting light over the valley, keeping the halogen bulbs at bay. I watch for a while as the sun drifts lower and lower, the brilliant ball of light turning from yellow, to orange, to red as it drifts below the horizon. I’ve never really thought of it before, but those halogen bulbs are somewhat tragic and sad. Such weak facsimiles of the real thing. I stand atop the bluff, mindlessly kicking dirt in thousands of forgotten footprints. I think about a man standing in this exact spot, hundreds of years ago, contemplating the same fading sun, and I feel minute and insignificant.
I suppose a sight like this should inspire wonder, but watching it now, nothing stirs within me. My capacity for wonder has been gone for longer than I can recall, and even this beautiful sunset feels as hollow and empty as the glow of those bridge lights.
Aimee would be so disappointed. Sitting in this spot, watching the slow setting of the sun had always been one of her favorite activities. Back then, seeing the smile cross her lips was just about all that I lived for. Now, the thought of seeing her face fills me with dread.
She’ll be able to smell the failure on me from a mile away.
I lean over the metal guardrail and stare down the face of the bluff. Though I can see the water lapping against the rocky bank below, I hear no sound. No sound except the wind, that is. In the river valley, the wind is like the hum of fluorescent lights. Most of the time, you don’t notice it, but if you pay attention, it’s always there. Even on the most stagnant of summer days, there is wind flowing down through the valley, pushing and pulling the tops of the trees in a gentle sway.
This time of the year, the wind is nearly constant, billowing and swirling. Creating white noise in the background. Nature’s static.
After a few minutes, I climb back into the truck and turn the engine over. No use delaying the inevitable. Better to yank the bandage off cleanly.
I’m three miles outside of town, and the dread has been growing constantly since I exited off of I-24. For the last thirty miles, each rotation of the tires has caused my chest to tighten more and more. Now, I’m three miles away, and I can taste the bile rising in the back of my throat.
When I finally pull into town, I feel a surprising sense of relief. As much as I’ve dreaded returning home—the bad dreams the constant questions—despite everything, this place is still home. Until this exact moment, I wasn’t sure if that was true. I couldn’t have been sure until I came back, but the answer was lying in wait where it had always been—a quarter-mile past the Culver County line.
For years, I have told myself that home didn’t exist anymore, and if it did, it certainly wasn’t Drury, Illinois. Driving down Main Street, however, the truth couldn’t be more obvious. This is what Granddad would have called roots.
If he were alive today, I’d tell him not to worry. I’ve spent the better part of five years trying to forget my roots, and it’s only taken me two minutes to find them again. They were here all along, thriving beneath the underbrush and muck.
I stop on ‘the island’ on the way through town. The island is little more than a short parking strip on the south side of the measly town square, but it had always been ground zero for teenage social life in Drury. If your evening plans were to ‘cruise’ the strip, you would make frequent stops on the island. Going out for a country run? You would meet up here first.
The island is empty when I pull in and stop, though even in the heart of summer, it was rare for all of the spaces to be filled. For now, though, the whole town is caught between the ending of the day, and the small-town bustle of the night, a hallmark of life in Middle America. In the rest of the world, the witching hour occurs around midnight, but in the rural Midwest, the witching hour comes just after sun-down—a stretch of quiet existing immediately after dinner-time, when everyone’s bellies are filled, and all of the businesses save for the local gas station have long-since closed. The town becomes desolate, a ghost town that will soon give birth to a smattering of young, restless souls seeking some semblance of nightlife.
In towns like this, those too young to hang out at the bars would partake in the only other option. They would drive, and park, and then drive some more. Sometimes these drives would lead to country cruises, a three hour tour with a rapidly warming case of beer riding shotgun on the center console. Other times, the drives would lead to flirting with a car-load of girls on the island, desperately trying to convince some young thing to drive off with you to a forgotten dirt lane behind a farmer’s field.
These nights, of course, led to their fair share of head shaking and hang-wringing from the local religious gossips. Occasionally, their judgment and condemnation would be justified by a local arrest or teenage pregnancy. But what did they expect?
Driving, drinking, and fucking are the cornerstones of teenage social life in the American Midwest. Given how little everything else has changed, I seriously doubt the recreational activities have expanded much.
After a few minutes, a mid-sized sedan pulls onto the island and parks a few spaces down. Even from this distance, I can tell that it is filled with the kind of pretty small-town girls that used to drive me crazy. Girls with long, flowing hair and ready access to shotguns and camouflage coats.
As much as I have been dreading the return home, these girls give me a sense of calm that I didn’t expect to find. Although Middleton isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, there was no doubt that I was considered a redneck from the moment I arrived to town, and though Whitehaven College isn’t exactly Harvard, the average student was still high-borne enough to look down his nose at a river-rat like me.
At first, the whole place was a complete culture shock. I walked around for the first few days mesmerized by the pretty girls in low-cut blouses. Although most of them came from a five-hundred mile radius around the college, they still seemed worldly and exotic to me. Looking down at the girls in the sedan, though, I realize that there is something to be said for the understated. A back-home girl in a tight, faded pair of frayed jeans.
I watch as they pass a bottle of cheap wine back and forth in the car, giggling and gesturing wildly.
When one of them catches me staring, I turn away quickly, but it’s too late. In the split second that my head was turning, I saw the look on her face. Horror. Disgust.
I immediately realize that I have become the very worst kind of cliché. The old guy, creeping around the teenage hangout. The pathetic, late-twenties loser with nothing better to do than park on the island.
I start the engine and drive away without looking back at the girls again. Hanging around here will only drag more clichés to the surface—the burnout…the dropout…wasted potential. All that shit.
In many ways, I’ve become what I swore that I wouldn’t. Fulfilled some kind of prophetic desire to fuck up that must be nestled deep within my DNA. What’s even worse than that, though, is that I’ve one again lived up to my names, both all of them.
When we’re born, we receive the name on our birth certificate, but we also receive other names as well, especially in small towns, places where everyone knows the intimate details of their neighbor’s dirty laundry. My parents named me Travis, and my friends called me Trey, but everyone knew me as the son of Marvin Kauffman, a man who had spent the better part of two decades establishing himself as one of Culver County’s most well-known and dependable fuck-ups.
I always told myself that I left because of the loss and the pain, that the ghosts of Tommy and my mother would always haunt this town. While there’s obviously some truth to that, it’s a gross over-simplification. On some level, I’ve known that I would run from this town since I was a boy, since the day I was old enough to understand my father’s reputation.
I suppose that there’s no lack of irony in the fact that I ran off to college and found a new, even worse father figure, and one of the first things he did when we met was give me a new name. Always watching, he had said. The constant observer. Even now I can hear that shrill laugh.
I drive to the edge of town, heading vaguely in the direction of my father’s house. It occurs to me that I haven’t really thought about him in years, which seems strange now. All those years spent obsessing about him, what he had done to us…how he had treated us, and then nothing. Like he was never there. For well over a decade, I hated him, yet he somehow slipped away the moment I left Culver County. A ghost confined to the city limits.
It’s not a story that’s all that interesting or unique. I’m certainly not the first kid whose old man walked out on the family.
I guess our case was only strange because he never really left. He was always there, lurking, oppressive. I won’t say that he was abusive because he wasn’t. For all his faults, he was never violent or angry, at least not with us. Nevertheless, his spirit hung about us like a weight around our necks.
In a small town, rumor is a currency.
The whole town knew the skeletons in the closet before we did, and his walking out didn’t spare us from any of it.
As soon as I pull up, I see that, like the rest of the town, the old man’s place is mostly unchanged. A few more weeds in the flower bed, and a bit more weather-wear on the paint, but otherwise it is exactly the same. I walk to the back door because I know it will be unlocked. It always was. In fact, I could probably walk up to the back door of any house in the neighborhood and find an unlocked door. No one fears the unknown in a place like this—the masked intruder, the night stalker. Here, everyone knows the devils. They shop at the supermarket, and drink coffee at the café just like everyone else.
I take a deep breath and look at the house once again before I walk in. I can’t really say what has brought me here, but it isn’t to talk to him. It’s past five on a Friday, and like every other night, he’ll be sitting on a barstool up at Garrett’s. The man is nothing if not dependably undependable.
Eventually, I’ll have to talk to him, but the thought turns my stomach. Crawling to him now, hat in hand—there’s no other way to see it. The truth is, I spent years of my life judging him, condemning him for his life and his choices. Hating him for the world he chose to embrace instead of staying with us. Now, I’m home to ask for an invitation into that same world, an audience with the worst bastard within a hundred-mile radius.
I can almost hear him, before I even say the words—the mocking and the derision. Big college boy, come back home, huh? You need help from your scumbag old man, and his scumbag friends? That’s the word you like to use, right? Scumbag?
I can hear him saying it, and he’ll be right. Every word of it. The shame of it all doesn’t change the fact that he’s the only hope I’ve got. That, by itself, is enough to show how monumentally fucked my whole situation really is.
The air inside his house slaps me in the face as I walk through the door, though it’s not the stale smell of leftover Stag and half-burnt cigarettes that bothers me. There’s something else hanging in the air like some kind of invisible fog.
This place is a tomb. A mausoleum for a life that he never quite lived.
Bob Dylan’s words ring through my head, “Visions of Johanna” from Blond on Blond, 1966, and I can almost feel Tommy beside me nodding gently to the words.
…Inside the museums, infinity is going up on trial,
Voices echo, ‘This is what, salvation must be like after a while’…
I walk around the room, peaking at pictures like a half-interested tourist in a third-rate museum—my senior picture, a snapshot of mom at their wedding, a picture of Tommy before the diagnosis.
The photos are scattered on bookshelves and hanging on the walls in no discernable order, each covered in a thick layer of dust. Though it’s not enough to make me weepy for the old man, I’m a little surprised. I wouldn’t have thought that he had enough empathy for snapshots and keepsakes.
There was a time, right after Tommy’s diagnosis that he feigned interest for a while. Playing the good father, and all that. It pissed me off from the get-go, but Tommy seemed happy, so I didn’t say much. Tommy knew, even from the beginning, that the writing was on the wall. Reconnecting with his father probably seemed like a good idea. Another checkmark on the terminal cancer to-do list.
Suddenly, a wave of panic once again grips my chest. I feel like the walls of this shitty little house are going to collapse in upon me, swallowing me up in the endless layers of dust and detritus. I make my way to the back door and burst out onto the lawn.
Staring up at the sky, I take long, deep breaths. Though I’m no stranger to the panic attacks, two in one day feels like a lot. Sometime between Tommy’s death and Mom’s accident, they started. The worst one was the evening after Mom’s funeral. I remember my heart pounding through the wall of my chest. I was convinced that I was going to have a heart attack and die right there on the spot, the Kauffman lineage completely obliterated inside of a year and a half.
That first time, it seemed like the pain would never subside. Like that white-hot ball of pain would burn and burn until I disintegrated from within. Slowly, though, I’ve learned that eventually the pain fades. The panic comes on like the sound of an approaching locomotive. Slow at first, then barreling down on you. The attacks usually leave me sweating and flushed, staring blanking into a mirror or up at the rust-stained ceiling in some dingy bathroom stall.
This one subsides quickly, a relatively minor blip. Maybe it’s the sky above me that helps the panic pass so easily. I know it’s just the lack of light in the town, but the sky here seems deeper than the sky in Middleton. The stars are more plentiful, the blackness more expansive—deep shades of a mystic purple and bands of coal-dark space.
As I look to the sky, I think about the one literature class I took during my time at Whitehaven, a stuffy class taught by an ancient professor. I can’t even recall the book, but I remember the day that he went on and on about the stars.
He was rail thin and feeble, with wild sprigs of ashy grey hair sprouting sporadically from his bald head. He would get so excited, waving his old man arms and pointing wildly with his long, thin fingers—loose, paper thin skin dangling off the knuckle joints as he gestured.
“When man looks up at the stars, he finds himself face to face with the only thing in this world commensurate with his capacity for wonder,” he had said. “We recognize our infinitesimal place in this universe, and it inspires us to become a greater version of ourselves.”
I’m not sure exactly why I remember the words so clearly, but I think it was his passion. The guy looked like a smiling, pink-skinned corpse. He had to be pushing ninety, yet he rode his bike to campus each morning, and proceeded to work himself into a frenzy as he talked about Milton or Chaucer. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about anything that much in my entire life, and I don’t even know what it means to be inspired to a greater version of myself.
As I stare up at the millions of pinpricks of light filling the black sky above, I don’t feel anything but small. Small and weak.
I hop back into my truck and drive south towards the edge of town. Flipping on the radio, I instinctively turn to 100.5, the only non-country radio station for miles that comes in clearly and consistently. I was completely unsurprised to hear a Led Zepplin track playing. The station bills itself as ‘Real, Classic Rock,’ which is a genre that should afford a huge catalogue, but the station rarely steps outside of a handful of staples: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and, of course, John Cougar Mellencamp, the authoritative troubadour of small-town, Midwestern life. I don’t necessarily dislike any of those selections, but the station reflects the constant reality of this place, a crushing lack of diversity that seemed to permeate every corner of the county. A man can only hear “Jack and Diane” so many times before he starts to lose it.
By the time Robert Plant’s voice begins to fade on “Whole Lotta Love,” I find myself parking the truck at the base of the Golden Eagle Bridge. Compared to the simple brick buildings and ranch homes that make up the town, the Golden Eagle Bridge is a massive structure. I remember thinking, as a child, that it wouldn’t be possible to build a structure taller than the massive piers of the bridge.
Everyone in Drury still refers to the Golden Eagle Bridge as the ‘New Bridge,’ even though there are only a handful of residents left alive that remember its construction. Only in a place like this could a seventy year-old bridge still somehow looked upon as ‘new.’
The ‘new’ bridge is a steel suspension bridge, with thick metal cables draping from pier to pier on each side. For as long as I can remember, the bridge has been painted blue, but standing under it now, it’s clear that the county workers haven’t been by to paint it in quite some time. Bare steel and rust peak out from below the blue paint along the entire railing, and even in the glow of the halogen lights, the bulk of the Eastern piers appear to be black.
I walk out to the middle of the bridge and stand, staring downstream at the river below. A few hundred yards down, I can just make out the crumbling remains of the old bridge. After so many years, not much remains besides the stone footings and parts of the original, crumbling stone towers. It must have been quite a sight in its day, a true monument to masonry and modern techniques, now unceremoniously casting itself stone by stone into the rushing waters below.
The skeleton of the bridge reminds me of the houses you come across all across the river. If you drive south from Drury, and follow the river road, you will find a handful of forlorn and forgotten houses. Huge, gothic structures straight out of a Faulkner novel. Long since forgotten, the roofs are caving in and the massive, wrap-around porches sag like wilted flowers. A few were built a bit too close the river, and now their crumbling foundations nestle far too close to the ever-expanding muddy banks.
Even when I was young, those fading relics always left me with a dim feeling of despair. These places, once so beautiful—the envy of the entire country, now sit amongst dense timber on weed-filled and untended lawns. The epitome of success, now rotting and teetering on the edge of a muddy river.
I lean out over the railing, and look directly down at the water below. Even from several hundred feet above, I can see the movement of the stiff current, the lights from the bridge reflecting off white caps in the blackened water. This time of year, the current is strong, the water bitterly cold.
Once, when I was in Junior high, my best friend David and I dared each other to jump into the water in late October, just before Halloween. Though the weather had yet to turn completely, the air was quite chilly.
I remember jumping into the water, the bitter cold taking a grip of my chest and stabbing daggers into my lungs. Of course, we underestimated the strength of the current. We expected to be able to swim to the side, just as we would in the middle of summer, but by that time of year, the river is much higher, and the extra volume increases the flow of the water exponentially. There was a moment as I dog-paddled towards the shore that I was truly afraid that I was going to die. It only lasted a moment, and we were both in and out of the water in a few minutes, but for those few seconds, the fear was real. The slap of the water, the surprising pull of the current, it all made me afraid, for a moment, that I would be swept away forever.
I remember walking a few blocks to my Aunt’s house to change. As we shivered in the fall air, we swore that we’d never do anything so stupid again. Of course, that wasn’t the first or the last stupid decision we’d make together, but we never jumped into the river in October again.
Thinking about David only increases the sense of dread I’ve been feeling all day. I keep telling myself that it’s all going to work out, that I’ll figure a way out of the mess I’ve put myself in, but I just can’t shake the fear. I suppose it’s a natural reaction, running home to find a way out. Unfortunately, there’s nothing here to reassure me that any escape truly exists.
Instead, I stand outside the decaying ruins of my father’s home, thinking about a promise, a promise I made to myself and to everyone else in this town, a vow to stay far away and live a very different life. To make matters worse, people like David and Aimee are standing in the wings. The ones that had always taken care of me, the ones who had pulled me through so much. It’s been over three years since I’ve talked to any of them. Three years without a single word for the people who were a literal lifeline for so many years.
I take a deep breath and look back towards main street, which terminates at the foot of the bridge. Here, just before you cross over the river and enter Arnette County, you can find Drury’s two most trusted and lasting business establishments, the Black Dogg Saloon and Garrett’s Tavern. Back in the fifties, when Arnette had still been a dry county, there were actually five bars along a three-block stretch of road near the bridge, an area everyone referred to as ‘The Levy.’ Though people still reference ‘The Levy,’ Garrett’s and the Black Dogg were the only two establishments to survive the sixties, after Arnette finally loosened the restrictions on liquor sales.
I know all of this because my father had told me, while I was sitting on a bar stool at Garrett’s and sipping at an orange juice or Shirley Temple. I was probably eight or nine, a few years before the old man left and didn’t come back. Even then, he appreciated a good afternoon drink, and I sometimes accompanied him to the bar, much to the dismay of my mother. There, I would receive all manner of educational experiences, but the most constant was Drury history lessons.
By the estimation of my father and his friends, the Black Dogg and Garrett’s were two of the oldest businesses of any kind in a fifty-mile radius. The notable exception, of course, was Piedmont Inn, which has stood on a bluff upriver for longer than Culver County has even been in existence. The Piedmont no longer functioned as hotel, but the tavern still runs. For nearly twenty-five years, it has served as the de facto headquarters for Gil Grady and his criminal enterprises. As such, no one tends to talk too much about the Piedmont.
Say the Devil’s name, and he appears, and all that.
Though Drury has a small police force, consisting of two or three officers, and the Culver County Sherriff’s department regularly patrols the area, there are only two real authorities in Culver County: God and Gil Grady. On Sunday’s, almost everyone in town made their way to one church or another, but the other six days of the week belonged to Gil, and nothing in town happened without his knowledge and tacit approval.
While the Piedmont survived the years on reputation and its association with Gil Grady, the Black Dogg and Garrett’s had survived because they serviced the two distinct clienteles that frequented Culver County establishments. The Black Dogg was a hangout for young, twenty-somethings coming in after work at Slater’s Truss Company or one of the rotating shifts at the Crown Mine. When we were in grade school, we heard stories about high-schoolers as young as sixteen getting served drinks at the Black Dogg, but by the time I had come of age, social custom demanded adherence to the law of the land, which meant you couldn’t start sneaking in until at least 18.
In places like Drury, ideas like ‘legal drinking age’ are more suggestions than actual practice. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Black Dogg would employ a bouncer that would “check” your ID, but the bouncer was always a fairly recent alumni of Drury High School who would glance casually at the ID’s as he waved people through without much thought to actual birth dates. Everyone knew everyone well enough to know who was legal and who wasn’t, but the bouncers were the owner’s idea of staying on the up-and-up, and least for appearances.
By contrast, Garrett’s was a bar for old men. I don’t know if my father ever patronized the Black Dogg. Though logic tells me that, at one time, he probably did, Marvin Kauffman had called Garrett’s tavern home for as far back as I can remember. I suppose that every bourbon-loving resident of Culver County is eventually faced with a monumental life question. Is it time to move across the street to the old man’s bar?
Over the years, I saw a few old men resisting the change, sitting in a booth at the Black Dogg, dressed in hip clothing and listening to Hot 100 tracks. In the end, they faded away and moved across the street because the truth becomes all too apparent—they are no less pathetic than a twenty-something hanging on the island and hitting on high school girls.
If I were to guess, I would say that my father didn’t put much thought into it at all. He probably happily made the trek across the road the Garrett’s. He was, above all else, a man resigned to practicality and resistant to grand displays of emotions. The day that he stopped fitting in at the Black Dogg, he probably skipped across the street eagerly to take up residence on the third bar-stool from the end of the bar, a seat that he has occupied for the entirety of my life.
As I look back towards the two bars, I can see a member of the Schell family walking gingerly across the road. Even after a half-decade hiatus from town, the Schell family is easy to spot from a mile away. They are Culver County’s resident indigent clan, a small family that has legendarily been inbreeding and huddling themselves away on a compound on the east side of town for decades.
For the most part, they are harmless. Though they are constantly scorned by the town—and ridiculed by local school children—as a group they have always seemed to resign themselves to their fate on the bottom of the social order without question or complaint. When I was in high school, some county officials once tried to come in and force the Schell children to attend school. The Schell hierarchy resisted, and they were threatened by DCFS, but in the end, nothing came from it. After a few visits from officials, the matter was quietly dropped.
The rumor at the time was that Arman Schell had somehow managed to fix the whole situation. If he had, it must have been through threats and intimidation because the Schell family had no money to speak of. According to local gossip, the family survived exclusively through hunting, mostly small game like rabbits and squirrels, and fishing from the river. What little money they needed, they got by selling animal pelts and turning in aluminum cans.
Though the Schells typically never hurt anyone, Arman Schell had a different reputation than the average Schell ‘cousin.’ The best-known story of Arman’s instability was a story about a neighborhood dog. Supposedly, a Drury High School Junior, his name long sense forgotten by the urban legend logbook, had once harassed Arman back when he was a young man. Though Arman had taken the abuse, he muttered something about cutting the nose off the boy’s favorite pet.
Two days later, the boy found the family dog in an alleyway burn barrel behind his house. The dog, which has morphed from a Labrador to a German Shephard over the years, was sliced open from head to rump. It’s hard to say if the story is really true, but that story, and others like it, was enough to give the town a healthy fear of the Schell clan, just enough to leave them alone to their own ways.
As I watch the nameless Schell walk across the street, there is no doubt in my mind of the person’s identity. Hunched over and sexless, walking with a slow and painful gait and dressed in rags from head to toe. The nameless, faceless Schell crosses below a street light and disappears into an alley, like he or she was never there.
For the first time in my life, I feel sorry for the Schell clan. Like everyone in Culver County, I was raised to ignore them. Just let them be, that was the popular expression. The Illinois River Valley equivalent of the homeless men at Venice Beach.
I went there once as a kid, not long before my parents split up. We had stayed at a hotel with a view of the Hollywood sign, taken a bus down to Venice Beach one day, Santa Monica pier the next. While we walked the boardwalk, my mother just keep talking about the beautiful weather and the interesting people. Halfway down the boardwalk we came across a homeless man passed out in a puddle of his own piss. The remains of a greasy, half-eaten burger strewn about his chest. Several seagulls were inching up and nibbling fries right off of his shirt as he slept.
I stared at the man and pointed, gap-mouthed and stammering. My mother pulled my hand down quickly and made a hushing noise. “Don’t point,” she said. “Just keep walking. Ignore that.”
In some ways, her words were a mantra for how we lived our entire, dysfunctional lives.
The whole trip to California was probably my mother’s idea to save the family and keep things together. A change of scenery, that was all that was necessary. Right up until the day she died, she had always been aggressively optimistic, her hopefulness bordering on mania. The woman never met a problem that didn’t have a solution. Then, her half-assed criminal of a husband left the family to nurse a growing alcohol problem, and her youngest son was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Mounting odds that could have crushed any natural-born optimist.
I knew, of course, that she was struggling in the wake of Tommy’s death, but I was far too selfish and pre-occupied. By the time I had figured enough of my own shit out to turn my attention to her, she was dead. Her car sliding off of sharp turn south of Baird’s Bluff. Wheels slipping on wet pavement.
I take a deep breath and bury the thought as quickly as it rises up.
I look across the street towards Garrett’s, toward what I need to do. The conversation that I’ve been dreading for days. He’s in there right now, I’m sure of it.
But first, I’m going to need a drink. I’m not ready to enter the old man’s bar just yet.