Here is a town that has learned from its history, a town that does not fight the mountain, does not fight the river.
The mine shaft opens its mouth. It holds two bodies in its teeth until they are wet and blue and soft. Come back. The sky grieves, and the banks swell. Everywhere, another pool of water on the street. Come back.
Every other house is a family name. The families, like the water, rise and swallow and spit and dry out. The houses go on standing. Red brick. Blue paint. Small arches in the drive like there is victory in the return. Church steeples stand sharp and proud against the sun. Up the hill to the south, a row of homes leans into the neck of the hill like a lover. I think about walking up to them.
Dark clouds bruise the afternoon, and I remember the advice barging in from every side like neighbors and their casseroles:
Be safe. Read: do not walk alone.
Rough city. See: the streetlights are a mother calling you to dinner.
It is urban. Urban: what does it mean? How many bodies are buried like hushed children? How many words, like names, does everyone know but not want to know?
Urban. Hear: ghetto. Hear: black. Hear: criminal. Hear: thug. Hear: the professor say this town is special, this town has not been marred by gentrification.
Half a block away, Papa’s Pizzeria and Italian Ristorante keeps the kitchen door propped open with a paint bucket. Hot tomatoes, basil, and rosemary tease the air. Light peeks into the vacant lot like a child who has already learned to fear shadows. A side of bacon chews fat on the griddle. I peer inside. Most of the tables are empty. Behind a granite counter linger cold slices of pizza, calzones, and wraps. Cases of Arizona tea and water sit next to a mint-green cooler. OPEN is a host in the window. OPEN.
On the first door is a handmade sign. Restroom is for Customers Only. The second door is clear. Clean. A glass stopgap to ward off the hungry. This is not a place for the hungry. No one is ever hungry who can afford not to be; my paycheck is still a week away.
Two blocks further east is a Dollar General; its automatic doors hang open like a wound or invitation. Hard to say. Every face is dark skin. Every item in my hands is on sale. I buy only what I need and do the math in my head. Toilet paper: $2. Gray towel: $3. Creamer: $2. I slip the items into my backpack.
My earbuds drown engines and crosswalk alerts with bass lines and jazz riffs. KRS One, Alicia Keys, Ice T. For a moment it is 2005 and I am home. There are five kids on my street, and our mothers take turns having us to dinner every week. Another moment and I am at the edge of campus.
The performance hall juts its chin and puffs its chest for patrons of tonight’s showcase. Its steps are stone and solid and wet. Inside, a stage, wooden folding chairs with stiff backs, curtains. At the center of the stage, a microphone and a podium command attention.
There are at least a hundred people scattered throughout the hall.
I sit in the far corner and know exactly where the exit is.
Illustration by Maxwell Tilse