Dark grey roads and signage ahead, I do not falter. Freezing rain and whipping winds, I do not stumble, for I know where I am going. The clouds parted as I left; their heavy bodies moved just to let the light fall on my face. The warmth nuzzled close to my skin, oils and blemishes, dry and cracked, but lovely, nonetheless. Nothing but hometowns behind me.
My hometown was ordinary. There was nothing special about it, no superstar or hero that was born there, no spectacular shopping mall or cinema. When I was a kid there were only a few gas stations; a full serve and one that was half-and-half. There weren't those big strip malls they have now or a Target where they sell fresh produce. There wasn't a stage downtown or a bronze statue of Orville Redenbacker, either.
When I was a child, there were cornfields for miles. Downtown was a mile long road with a few old shops, a Big Wheel restaurant, and an old car dealership on the corner. Calumet Avenue was still filled with fields on both sides. There was no Taco Bell, CVS, or Walgreens yet. Back when I was a kid Route 49 and Vale Park was only separated by one stop light. There was no fancy overpass with "Valparaiso" lit up on the side. A few years after my childhood friends' mother was killed at that intersection they put up flashy neon yellow warning signs but it wasn't until the mayor got his extra money that he decided there were too many deaths.
When I was six years old my brother and I would build forts out of snow and soak our snowballs overnight in water. We had neighborhood snowball fights that lasted all weekend, where our friends' parents would play with us, making me wonder where mine were. We had bonfires in our backyard and lit fireworks back before it was illegal to set them off on any day but the fourth. My elementary school was still in the same hundred year old building, the same one my grandmother went to school in as a child. The floors creaked as I walked on them, the faded dark blue carpeting so worn you could see the wooden planks. In the fifth grade, my locker was in the basement. There was still a bomb shelter from way back when, a boiler room we played hide-and-seek in, and our principal still had a paddle to punish kids.
I could walk home after school, cut through the cornfield with friends. I could go to the movie theatre by Kmart, spend five dollars and get all the candy I wanted. I could ride on my dad's lap while he mowed the lawn and not have to worry. I could walk around my neighborhood at night and catch lightning bugs in jars, play flashlight tag with friends, and shoot bebe guns at old Tab cans.
I walked down those roads for the last time before I left. I went two houses down on the left and remembered my best friend Tia, how we knew each other since we started kindergarten. How everyday after school her mom babysat me. How we played pretend tea with a pink kitchen set and how I broke her Easy Bake Oven. I remember sitting in her garage every day in the summer and met with our "club members." How we made our own business cards with lined paper and markers. And, how on the day she moved to Missouri, on the last day of eighth grade, I sobbed because she never said goodbye to me.
I looked behind me, two houses down on the right and remembered my friend Jon. How we were inseparable since the second grade. How Jon and I would get into all sorts of trouble, how we cut the window screen with his dads pocket knife. How we hid in the shed and pretended it was a treehouse. How we took pictures with those blue toy cameras and how his dad came into his room and smashed his Nintendo 64 with a hammer and left without a word. How I slowly watched him go down the rabbit hole, a dark road of intense drugs and addictions. And, how on the last day I saw him I hugged him, his boney body and hollow eyes reflecting in mine.
The house across from mine were where a few older kids lived. Lindsey was my babysitter and her brother Chris was in high school. I remember listening to Lindsey play acoustic guitar and sing. How she had a raspy voice and how her long blonde hair smothered her face as she hunched over her guitar. I remember the day her best friend drowned in her pool because of a heroin overdose. How she only had to just remember to stand up, how she forgot. How I drove in the backseat as we took Lindsey to the funeral. And, how she couldn't stay for more than five minutes.
My hometown wasn't special but it was mine. It was where I lost myself and cried, where I fantasized about my own death and how I never believed I could go anywhere else. It was where I fell in love in the sixth grade, where I attempted suicide in the basement bathroom, where a kid brought a machete to my high school and hurt a lot of my friends. It was where my locker neighbor passed his dad's gun to one of his friends in the high school bathroom and the next morning we heard he shot himself in the head. It was where I stood against the wall at middle school dances, where I befriended one teacher, and was harassed by all the others. Where my guidance counselor told my mother I would never get into a community college. And, where I received my first acceptance letter to a private university.
It was my birthplace, where my grass roots lie, where I still visit my grandfather's grave. While it's not the place I now call my home, it will always be an old scrapbook that is kept underneath the staircase in the basement closet. Something, I will pick up again, when the time is right, dust it off and relive the memories.