Take Me on a Tour of Your Hometown

By M.P. Armstrong

The town was almost destroyed by a flood in the 1920s.

I drive down the main drag, slowly. The car radio screams with static. A nearby

restaurant sign reads “Blue Ruin” in art deco sans serif. An old man in a hat watches me

from the rocking chair on his front porch.

I am half-expecting; the voice of Roosevelt will boom through my speakers, a flapper

will stumble onto the sidewalk, drunk on bootleg gin, the man will leap from his chair to

accuse me of time-travel.

Nothing happens.

When I tell the story, I pepper my speech with adjectives: silent. Haunting. Frozen in

time. I personify: the buildings linger, the streets hush, the air breathes. I try to make the

others feel like I felt: like spirits were brushing their teeth, clocking into work, standing

on every crack in the sidewalk and turning me superstitious with their faded sepia eyes.

It works, usually. Everyone loves a good ghost story.

But not always.

An audience of one, late at night in a deserted residence hall. The perfect atmosphere.

All I am missing is a flashlight to hold under my chin.

I start to speak, to align my metaphors and imagery into a creepy constellation, to draw

the other person into the passenger’s seat and feel the chill of a place that never

progressed past the Roaring Twenties. On a good night, I can even inject a sense of

foreboding: an invasion is sneaking closer and closer to this town. Do I mean the Great

Flood in the next year, the Great Depression in the following decade, or the Great

Forgetting, that will slowly chip away until it only exists like this, in anecdotes trotted out

in the appropriate moment but lost in a week or so? Does it matter, if I invoke the little

gasps and raised eyebrows of an enthralled listener?

It doesn’t, that night. Those reactions never come. Instead, the observation, matter-of-

fact: “that sounds like your town.”

I protest. This is different. This is terrifying, alien; this is nothing like home.

 

“Okay. Then take me on a tour of your hometown. What would it look like, if you were a

stranger driving through?”

I blink.

I am downtown.

Downtown: built to resemble the architecture familiar to its Connecticuter founders. A

towering courthouse with a dome tinged green over the years, ringed with a square of

businesses. The new coffee shop, packed with high schoolers snapping aesthetic

photos against an attractive backdrop of greenery, is sandwiched in between an empty

storefront and Howard’s.

The empty storefront: that used to be Riverwalk Diner, your mother tells you every time

you drive past. We used to go there for dinner after church sometimes. There was a

tank of fish by the front door. We thought it was so cool, as kids; this was before the

Red Lobster opened by the mall.

This is the monologue of before. Before what--before the steel mills shuttered, before

kids tried to move away after high school, before the plant closed--that is never

specified. It doesn’t matter. There was a before, and you were born after, to learn the

story of the past from the landmarks:

Howard’s: no one is quite sure if it is open. It sits, squat red brick, on a corner. Along

North Park, the A is missing. Along East Market, the O. I’d like to buy a vowel, Alex, the

high schoolers’ dads joke. The mannequins are in the windows are dressed in the neon

colors of the 1980s, but lack the fade and dust of the typical abandoned establishment.

You would know.

Follow North Park: churches collect cobwebs in the pews and fissures in the stained

glass. Parishioners stopped putting their spare pennies into the collection plates years

ago, stopped having spare pennies not long after. Apartment complexes have grand

names, like Camelot and Bel Air, that clash with the broken air conditioning units and

unsmiling tenants poking out from the windows. Eventually, the manufacturing giant.

Hulking. Still. Roadkill on the side of the highway.

Follow East Market: here, rows of hair salons and tennis courts construct a prettier

picture. These salaries--doctor, lawyer, owner--survived the cuts, produced people who

donate to the new building for the rarely-attended megachurch and buy the McMansion

on the hill with the big backyard for the dog and two-and-a-half kids on the way. But do

not be fooled by their playacting at prosperity. Their children try to move away after high

school, too.

Follow either road far enough: reach the rural farms, the horse-and-buggies of the

Amish and the crops that kids who live on either road struggle to identify.

This is a Frankenstein’s monster of a place. City, suburb, and country push up against

each other, jostling for a hold on the culture. Jagged seams stretch across the families,

pulled from different places and patched together. You see the threads, but you have

stopped paying attention after so many years. You grew up here.

You grew up here: you rowed and fished on your friends’ algae-encrusted lakes, swam

and sunbathed in your friends’ chlorinated pools, walked to the community splash pad

and Wendy’s from your friends’ houses.

You grew up here: your government teacher warned you to vote for the school levy,

because when your parents got old or you got tired of the big city, you’d come back. It is

your inheritance, your heartbeat.

You grew up here: to you, this is a creature, eloquent and alive no matter what ghosts

the strangers driving through see. You are still fixated on the body, watching for its

chest to rise and fall again.

M.P. Armstrong is a disabled queer writer from Ohio, studying English and history at Kent State University. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Silver Birch Press, Prismatica Magazine, and Red Earth Review, among others. They also serve as managing editor and reporter for Curtain Call and Fusion magazines. In their spare time, they enjoy traveling, board games, and brightly colored blazers. Find them online @mpawrites and at mpawrites.wixsite.com/website.