As the slug1 buried2 beneath a recurring3 hosta4, I5 have6 lived7 a sheltered8 life.9
1 Ms. Howler is the broomstick of a teacher who made me write that sentence up there. The assignment was to write a single sentence describing our quaint, (that’s a new one), little town of Hillsboro and then an explanation about why you wrote what you did. Old Howls seemed excited about the assignment, those always drooping eyes and frown lines covering her teeth livening up when she gave it to us. As well they should, because you see Rebecca Howler is really not that old, only 39, but she looks so damned tired and hollow and frail all of the time that you’d think she was half way through her fifties, coming up on spinsterhood. (I only know that word because my Aunt Sue is not married and my dad always calls her “my spinster sister” when he’s smashing through a 24 pack of Banquet Beer and my mom’s not around, as if spinster is a real bad word to call a woman or to even be said around one.)
Hence the name Old Howls, though when she gives an assignment like this, or is tramping through a discussion of Mark Twain, (anything that white mustache ever put pen to paper about, I swear), or is talking to the new P.E. teacher Mr. Lauer, she sheds the years like sand and shines like an old French door after a couple rounds with a sander and a few gallons of poly. At those times, you could almost swear that the sixth grade boys, my classmates, actually notice her, and I mean NOTICE her in the way that only middle school boys notice girl teachers. Even the girls are taken aback, thinking all along that they don’t ever want to grow up and look like this bookish, (another new word), little square of a woman… BUT NOW WAIT JUST A SECOND…WHO IS THAT SHIMMERING AT THE FRONT OF THE ROOM?
As for me, I don’t mind Ms. Howler either way, spinster or no. She’s alright and sometimes gives assignments other than summaries and short answers to discussion questions, assignments like this one, which I should get to.
2 “Fifty miles west of Bloomington is Hillsboro, a monument to middle-class malaise.” That’s the sentence I started with. I like that word. Malaise. It’s another new one. I always thought that a class was something that you graduated from, and finally after grade 12, you were done. But I’m learning that’s not the case. I think I like the sentence up there a little better. There’s no politics, which my dad says is for folks that don’t have anything better to do but “get dressed up and argue about the weather.” I have problem enough get dressed for school without mom chasing me around with a wooden spatula, swinging it as if I were hungry mosquito or something.
3 If Hillsboro were shaped like a monument, the town square would be at the middle of the thing, the concrete foundation of the monument poured with rebar spread through it. And close around the square are the schools and the restaurants and the old furniture store even though it’s closed and I guess even the Walmart too is right there near the foundation. Coming out from there, to the places where people actually look at, there’s the heartbeat of names that shape Hillsboro into what it is and what it always has been. Yes, the Hamills and Harts and Wellers and Henrys and all the rest, the ones who were born here, walked in the same halls of school that their kids are now, who swam in the same pool and worked cutting lawns and babysitting in the houses attached to those lawns, who grew up and ventured out sometimes, but stayed more often than not and came back if they did go away and bought those houses where they cut the lawns and babysat, (saying “We’re over at the old Porter place” and everyone knowing exactly where that is,) who now donate money for a new floor for the basketball gym and uniforms for the softball team, who run for the county seat and win because their fathers and mothers have won before and they use the same dusty campaign signs, who eat fried catfish at one of the restaurants on Fridays because they all are serving it and it is Friday, who dust off their best on Sundays and the men all look uncomfortable in ties and the women look beautiful in long dresses and short heels, but heels nonetheless, and who are buried in family plots out in the country if they still own the land or in the cemetery on top of the namesake hill that gives the town its name, the cemetery that I wonder what will happen to when all the space is filled and there is nowhere else to dig into that isn’t already headstones.
4 Hostas litter not only our backyard, but most of the backyards in Hillsboro, if not everywhere. They swallow baseballs whole. I’ve taken shovels to them before, and they still won’t give up those red laces, or heaven forbid, stop coming up the next spring. I don’t salt slugs that crawl up our front door, and I won’t let mom do it either, no matter how much she complains about the “damn holes in her hostas.”
5 I’m an only child. We have had a series of vagrant animals as pets: baby robins, rabbits, two raccoons who ate creamy peanut butter, and a pot-bellied pig. The pig was and is known as “sister.” She eats better than any of us.
6 Everyone here knows who has money in Hillsboro, big money with acres and acres in the bottom ground next to the river or with more than three hog confinements and always planning more. Other than that, you don’t really have any idea about how much people have until they go and spend it on something that you can see. Like a car, or a piece of land, or a house, or sometimes a boat, and everybody guesses about how much the item in question cost them, giving them some sort of foothold as to estimating how much they have left over sitting in the community bank across the street from the courthouse and comparing it to what they themselves have in there. Some people buy more things than others which makes it easy, and some people don’t buy anything at all and you can’t really say whether or not they are squirrelling it away someplace or simply don’t have it in the first place, but that’s how it goes in Hillsboro: one week it is the Ziegler’s new Toyota and next week it is the Gregg’s putting their name on the old Henry spread north of town.
I’m really not sure where my family sits as far as that fence is concerned. I mean my dad drives a 1997 Chevy 250, forest green with rust creeping around the wheel wells and above the running boards. He works as a laborer for a natural gas company a half hour drive north of here. What he actually does there he has never said with much clarity, making me believe he doesn’t get much more out of his work than a paycheck. Mom drives a 2000 Ford Windstar Minivan with the one sliding door opening behind the passenger door which makes it look and feel like a stunted school bus. The cloth upholstery has smelled like Camel 99’s since we bought it used from our neighbor and my mother has done nothing but add to that ancient musk with her own menthol cigarettes, (her type changes depending on the price.) She’s one of the hairdressers at the one ladies’ barber shop in town. (The ex-marine’s is on the square next to where the furniture store used to be.)
We live between the high school and the gas station north of town in a single story ranch style home, which I only know because my mother describes it as such to distant relatives at family reunions. We’ve got a decent sized backyard, the same as everybody else’s, and there’s not much out there besides the hostas, a crabapple tree, an oriole feeder that hasn’t been filled in years, and a planter box that’s been taken hostage by a host of threatening cone flowers.
7 I don’t mind living here. Of course I don’t have much to compare it to, but I think it could probably be a lot worse. My cousin, (on my mom’s side, not the spinster,) lives over by the capital and my aunt doesn’t let him ride his bike at night or even let him go to the state fair because she says it’s too dangerous, which is probably true but she also has a lot of my grandmother in her, a true worry wart who always tells me not to walk on railroad tracks or to piss on electric fences, honest to God. It seems a shame to not be able to go down all those streets or see all those lights flashing in August. Sometimes I do wonder about what it’d be like to live over where they’re at, especially when he tells me about going to summer camp in the suburbs and meeting a girl from California, a girl that he says he kissed. Now can you imagine that, actually knowing somebody from all the way in exotic California, and not only that but to be able to kiss her? I know one girl from Missouri, but I’m guessing that she’s not all that much to look at compared to CALIFORNIA, you know?
8 For starters, Hillsboro isn’t really fifty miles west of Bloomington. At least not directly west. Bloomington’s about two hours northeast of us, but if you look at the map in Mr. Giels’s Social Studies room, they are about an inch apart sideways, which on my mother’s road atlas here beside my bed at least stands for fifty miles. And plus, my sentence, “Fifty miles west of Bloomington lies Hillsboro, a monument to middle-class malaise,” sounds so definite, so honest with that cardinal direction and everything that saying southwest would be sort of like lying.
Hillsboro is just seven miles west of the Illinois River, and this is according to the wise green road sign in front of the high school as you drive east out of town on Highway 106, not some road atlas from the 1980s. The green sign on the other side of the highway, that is if you are driving into town instead of away from it, reads, “Hillsboro” and beneath it, “Pop:2372”. The welcome sign which caused quite a stink a few years back when people were trying to figure out what to paint on it reads, “Hillsboro: A Place Of Faith, Family, and Friends.” Identical signs as these can be found at the township lines in the ditches of all of the three ways into town.
The town of Hillsboro itself doesn’t have much to be remembered for and so calling it a monument to anything, even malaise, feels like pulling a little one over on mom (yes, I brushed my teeth before school, or no I didn’t rip my jeans climbing up Mr. Edwards’s tree again, I’m just hitting my growth spurt), something where there isn’t much to be gained by lying but I do it anyway, just because.
The whole of Hillsboro can be summed up pretty easily: four restaurants with different recipes for white gravy being the only true difference between them, a grade school, a high school, a football field surrounded by a cinder track overgrown with crabgrass, a community pool with only one diving board, a Catholic church with a big parking lot and our Christian one, one grocery store consisting mainly of a meat counter and movie rentals, three gas stations for some reason, two ladies barbershops and one run by an ex-marine who has paper planes dangling from the ceiling and clippers from the service which he uses to carve out buzz cuts only, a lumberyard that just got a brand new building which I think is ironic because it used to be in a ratty old barn of a place, and for the last eight years, a Walmart at the edge of town.
9 At night I dream of Hillsboro, of the faces and the window shutters and the four-way stop. I wake up, after several chastisements from my mother, (thanks Pastor Ross,) wondering if I’ll ever move away from here, and if I do, whether or not my mind will always dream in Hillsboro.
For some damn reason, I think it will.
Avery Gregurich lives in Iowa and sells groceries most days. He’s never strayed too far from the Mississippi River. His first publication, “Cemetery Boy,” appeared in Contrary. Other things can be found at http://averygregurich.com/.