Back in late April of this year, I picked my mother up from the airport in Portland, OR, the town in which I lived at the time. She’d flown in from St. Louis, MO, the nearest city to my hometown, where she still lived with my stepfather. My hometown is Carbondale, IL, and it is a two-hour drive from there to the airport in STL.
Carbondale isn’t really close to anything. Within its borders is a hospital, a library, chain restaurants, a dying state university. The university mascot is the Saluki, a breed that traces its origins back to the Fertile Crescent; the regional nickname for Southern Illinois is Little Egypt; fields of soybeans sway to the horizon; there is a small town named Cairo at the bottom of the state and the locals pronounce it like this: kay-row. Carbondale is an ethnically diverse town, containing white and black and brown folk. It is mainly poor, country rural, with strains of moderate wealth strumming through it here and there, owing to the dying university, which, at one point, was quite the opposite.
My parents moved with my brother and me to Carbondale, the Dale, as it is known colloquially, in the mid-1980s. I have vague recollections of those days. Somewhere, there is a photo of the four of us perched atop the hood of the brown Honda Accord my father purchased once he started making decent bucks as a doctor of cardiopulmonary disease. My parents divorced when I was young enough to not recall my age or where I was in elementary school. I’d say right around third grade. That sounds about right.
The day in PDX was gray and cool and free of rain. It was springtime and the river by my apartment was swollen and its murky waters had swallowed a portion of the park that ran along its southern shore. My mother flew out because I was finished with Portland and was gearing up to drive across the country to Chicago. I’d already quit my job and sold my sofa and packed all my junk. My mother was gonna be my co-pilot. We’d never taken a trip of any kind in close to two decades. I thought it would be a fun experience for us both. My mother’s only condition was that we leave the set course of travel in order to witness the headwaters of the Missouri River. The route to Chicago was about twenty-two hundred miles, a distance we planned on covering in four days. Zip zip.
As it goes, we’d not done any kind of serious travel since my brother and I were kids and could not drive and my mother the only one behind the wheel of the ‘94 Chevy Cavalier (gray paint, gray upholstery) she’d inherited after the passing of her mother. The trips we took in that car was this one : back and forth from the Dale to Hawthorne, NJ, any number of times, until I was an adolescent. Hawthorne is the last town my mother called home until she moved away for college and the rest of her life.
For about the past ten years, my mother has consistently informed my brother and me that she would be damned in and in hell before she spent more years living in the Dale than the age she was when she moved there. As it turns out, 2017 marked that cutoff. Sometimes she’d wonder aloud where those thirty-three years went. Like, I came here young, son. You know.
My mother grew up in New Jersey and when she says radiator or coffee they tumble out as rad-ee-ator and caw-fee. Before she had us kids, she’d dreamt of being an airline stewardess. I write stewardess as that was what it was then when she’d had that dream. It was a dream she could not pursue as she did not meet the height requirement listed by the airlines. Over the years, my mother has been a flautist, a mental health case worker, a teacher of sorts in the Carbondale Public School system. The last job was one she held in disdain and the one that would carry her into retirement. Just as she’d languished in Carbondale, she languished in a job that gave her no sense of joy or accomplishment. It was time, finally, to get the heck out of Dodge. I don’t think it was a month after her last day of work ever that she and my stepfather put the house up for sale. I thought it was bad timing. In Illinois, at that time, and now, the powers that be were working hard to fuck it up big time. For nearly two years, the state functioned without a budget. The university creaked and cracked a bit more and stopped hiring. Nobody held their breaths. When they got the house appraised, its value had dropped by almost a third when they last checked its worth. But fuck it, they said, and put the For Sale sign out in the front yard.
I’d left for Portland in 2014. I’d been living in Madison, WI, prior to the move. I spent three years in that town. And they were hard years and seemingly without end. I was sad most of the time. I hated my job and, yet, I found salvation in it, as I was able to hunker down in my cubicle and write by day and week, and churned out stories by the gross. I drank slowly and carefully. I went for runs and stayed up late. One unfortunate evening, I renounced writing, and dumped all of my notes and other writerly ephemera into a number of the plastic Woodman’s grocery bags I employed as trash bags. Another evening found me slumped in a miserable heap by the small waterway situated between the Lakes Monona and Mendota. I held a lot against that town, including that it was in Lake Monona that Otis Redding and most of his band perished on a snowy winter night five decades ago. It was a fucked up and transformative time, in many ways.
There wasn’t much to do in my apartment by the time my mother and I pulled up under the bridge that hulked overhead. There was some sweeping that needed done. The refrigerator was ready for a scrubbing. Mainly I needed to send my books across the country via the post. To make a couple runs to the Goodwill. So we went for a late lunch and talked about my brother and other things.
I’ve never been much of an adventurer. The last long trip I took prior to driving to Portland was when I drove to visit my brother when he lived in New Mexico. He was living on a farm and the scene that I came upon when I arrived there in the wintertime afternoon eight years back was of a woman stretching a fresh hide with a solution of brain matter and other intoxicatingly strange ingredients. I would later learn that the brain in that bizarre stew was once possessed by the owner of the hide that was strung about the two posts that held it up like a suede flag. From that time forward, I made it back to New Mexico once more and then spent the next six or seven years putzing in Illinois and Wisconsin.
My mother was a traveler once. To some degree. We’ve not talked about her youth much. Her twenties and all. I do know that she traveled to Russia, at one point. The USSR, I guess. That she’d been to England and traveled on a hovercraft over some isle or another. She’d seen Europe. And Nicaragua, the country my father hails from. With my dad, they skipped from city to city, from somewhere in New Jersey to St Louis to Tallahassee and then, finally, to Carbondale. She’s been to Cairo, also, the real one, in Egypt. That trip, I’m certain, was the last real one she took in the last fifteen or so years. She went with my stepfather. Their friends were living there. One of these friends is a poet and artist. There is a print of his artwork above this computer, for instance. It is picture of doorways. In the past five years, my mother’s travels have been to two sections of the country: Oakland, CA, and West Milford, NJ. In Oakland is my brother, his wife, and their kid. My mother went out there a lot as she was having a damn good time being a grandmother and all that jazz. Especially as my bro and I had for the longest time said we’d be damned and in hell before we would join any partnership that would result in a kid. But things change. New Jersey is where my mom’s siblings reside. She went there a lot in the past five years because her kid brother, Tom, got cancer, which he would succumb to in the spring of 2016.
I enjoyed my time in Portland until I didn’t. And the time spent driving to the city. Back then, I’d forgotten of the vastness of the country. It had been years since I’d driven more than five hundred miles in any one direction. The major highways I took to Portland from Wisconsin took me through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. There was also an excursion into Wyoming. The original plan was to check out the Devils Tower in that state. I’d long admired its weirdness. Its jutting out of the earth like a huge striated button just waiting for some humongous god or monster or something or other to come by and push it back into the soil. But there was a motorcycle hangout going on when I’d be passing through, and even the KOA camping sites were going for a hundo or more just to lay a tent down. I went into Yellowstone instead. And saw bison lumbering around like mobile sofas clad in rotty brown shag upholstery masquerading as fur.
My mother and I loaded up my car on a rainy morning in Portland. The rear of the car was packed with dishes and sheets and clothes and my stereo. Not much more. Toothpaste and toothbrush. I was excited to shove off and get going. I left a kitchen table behind. My bed. My landlords said, Heck, just leave em. We’ll find someone who could use em. My landlords were from STL originally, and were friendly, and still Midwestern, and drank like college freshmen, and often fought in the early evening, and were awake by the times the birds creeped up from their tepid slumbers. Every few weeks, I’d take my recycling out and shake my head with wonder and astonishment at the blue bin brimming with empty handle bottles of gin and vodka and thigh-sized bottles of red wine. But lots of us have been there, and are there, and will be.
I was excited because on the opposite side of the country, my partner, Jeanne, was packing up her belongings and preparing to shed the life she lived in order to start one with me. She was living in New York City, NY, the biggest city in the country. Similar to me, family would be helping her drive across the country. Her sister-in-law had flown from Santa Cruz, CA, to load and steer her across one thousand or so miles that lay between NYC and Chicago. Because you can kind of do whatever you want in NYC, they parked their rented Budget truck right on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building.
For the longest time, I’d simply assumed that my folks, all of them, would not uproot from Carbondale. They’d just been there for such a long time. It was less than an abstraction and more like a patent untruth. Because, ya know, thirty-three years isn’t a minor collection of years. It’s three decades. In that time I went from a preschooler crying and clinging to a chain link fence to a grumpy high schooler to a grumpy college kid to a grumpy adult to, improbably, to me, at least, a pretty happy thirty-something copywriter with a supportive and lovely partner.
My mother and I talked about many things as we sliced across the country. We talked about my prospects in Chicago (I didn’t have any), my partner Jeanne, the way my life imploded/exploded in Portland and how trust is a fickle thing. We talked about the house and how it refused to sell itself. We talked about my stepfather and his age and how he was getting along. We listened to Serial and it was new to us because we are both resistant to new things a lot of the time. We saw not a single bison. We saw mountains and snow and trees and rivers. We counted license plates. We stayed in dirt cheap Airbnb rentals. One of them was miles removed from any road or highway and tucked in a canyon. We did not drive fast. We drove fast. We did not drive at night. We marveled at the vastness of the country. As it happened, we took almost the exact same highways I took to get out of the Midwest in the first place. At one point, I paused to reflect on that. How momentous it seemed, to be retracing, to be going back, to be bidding adieu to all that horror and sadness. At the same time, I thought of my mother and her need to escape. Because I know what it’s like to live in a place you don’t want to, and to have the feeling that escape is beyond the scope of what is possible.
The headwaters of the Missouri River weren’t much to look at. The more so when you think of its length, some two thousand three hundred miles and change. Which is approximately the number of miles my mother and I drove. My mother was ecstatic to be there. I could see why. That something so vast, something capable of reshaping the land over which it flowed, could have so simple a beginning, and that, if you followed it, if you let yourself be carried by its waters, you’d come to an end.
The house sold last month. Some young guy bought it. I’ve never seen him. It’s the last weekend of the month of July and this afternoon I’ll drive back to the Dale and help my mom and stepdad pack up whatever things they didn’t sell or give away. My partner is coming with me and we’ll lift boxes and furniture together. They’re moving to Florida, my parents and stepdad. Far away from the Dale, and Oakland, and Chicago, and New Jersey. It’s a place, though. And there are Palm Trees. And the Gulf of Mexico.