We’re standing on the platform, because Ajani loves watching the trains pull in and out. Inside, I’m laughing at myself, thinking that despite how very middle America this is…the flat landscape, the potbellied conductor, the optimistically manufactured town square, all the Japanese cars in the parking lot…I’m yet hearing an exotic musical undercurrent in it. The grassy arable smell, the damp heat relieved by the breeze at dusk, and now the train platform–these, to me, mean France, and contact made with the unknown.
Walking Leann and Ajani back to their car, I stop hearing her for a minute. My head’s taken over by another of those existential blitzkriegs. “What the hell am I doing? I’m not supposed to be here!”
Leann says she feels like that whenever she sees the train come in, only it’s on behalf of the passengers. “Why in the world would you get off here?”
The feature that most unnerves me about this place is how you look to the distance, and it isn’t there. I mean, there is no distance–no shadows of things beyond, like mountains or ocean or treelines. You could hit the end of the horizon with a baseball.
With nothing to mark them, the days go by much faster than they did in Tennessee, the week before this. I remember that at least one day this week, there was a lightning storm that I outran. Also, there was a third grade class field trip, a crowd of kids that walked around the back of the house to look at the third oldest tree in the state of Illinois.
I remember that one day this week, I felt productive enough in the morning to take a lunch hour, as if I were actually at work. I went out with a book and a Mexican blanket, to sit under a tree at the road’s end. It was warm and windy; I tucked my skirt between my legs and felt a peculiar privilege in the simultaneous feeling of relaxing in stillness and hurtling forward. Then I heard a sound behind me and thought, “They don’t have rattlesnakes here, do they?” It was a teenage boy in a golf cart, with a Boo Radley sort of expression on his face and a dog by his side. I waved; he waved back, and pulled a weed whacker out from the back of the golf cart, stealing oblique glances back over his shoulder every few seconds. I picked up my blanket and went back to the house.
Writing has been hard, lately, in a way I’m not used to. It feels as if I’m trying to communicate in the language of a country I’ve never visited. I want to blame the heaviness of the weather for the rheumatic struggle of my brain.
I try taking my work to uptown Normal, where we watched the trains. But between the thick quietness, and the emptiness of a small college town in summer, and the way sound gets lost like a dropped marble down the flat one-way streets, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m walking through my own dream.
In the car, I turn on my music and there’s a song I haven’t listened to in a really long time, not since I sent to someone who said he never got it. Curiously, hearing it made me happy.
Both times that I went to France, I knew I’d be coming back to what I’d left behind. Here in middle America, it’s different, because I speak the language, which makes quietness mean something.
As this song accompanies me down the two-lane bucolic corridor of Oakland Drive, it unpacks a jumble of associations–France, middle school, North Park, a week three summers ago, Ocean Beach, last fall. I feel the way parents must when they let their child do his own packing.
I wonder if we ever grow up past the point where we imagine these songs mean something–for our specific lives, I mean, for the particular moments when we hear them while driving through a soupy dusk that seems like it won’t end until we take it for granted it won’t, waste a little time, and find the darkness has caught up with us.
This is why I like to sit under the burr oak at the end of the road. Because the wind rushing past makes me feel as if I’m going somewhere. Because, clearly, something in me hasn’t moved at all, though I’ve driven so many miles that it’s nearly time to replace my engine.