The courtroom is on the fifth floor of a large stone building that was once the Baltimore post office—a stuffy room with thick blue carpeting and walls of wood paneling, several Xeroxed signs reminding us not to chew gum, and long pew-like benches where we crowd together and grumble about how inconvenient it would be to serve on a jury. After we are sworn in, the judge instructs us to stand if certain statements apply to us, and I’m surprised by what people will admit. Would you believe something simply because it was said by a police officer?
In seventh grade, your friend Megan invites you to go raiding, which means sneaking around in dark clothes and throwing feed corn on other people’s houses. This is rural Pennsylvania, a small town of rolling fields and old steel mills. It’s fall, cold. The point is trespassing, minor vandalism, the fact that you are twelve and living in a place where nothing ever happens.
You start at Megan’s house in a damp wooded valley not far from the river and walk toward the highway. It’s dark out, though probably not any later than seven or eight o’clock. Back here, in her neighborhood, there are steep hills, one after another, and the houses are set too far back from the road for an easy escape, and so for a while, the three of you—Megan, you, her neighbor-friend Derek—just walk.
I’m at an arts center in Brussels, waiting to see a movie and trying to look Belgian. Or at least not American. Or at least not like an American who’s here without purpose, floating through this city for a few days because, for the first time in many years, she happens to be in Europe. Because I know almost nothing about actually beingBelgian, though, my strategy is basically just to look bored. As if, like the other theatergoers, I’m here simply to support the arts festival that’s taking place, not cataloguing the hip crowd of people chattering around me in French and Dutch, nor analyzing their sensibly edgy way of dressing, nor contemplating the drizzling rain outside the wall of windows that covers the tourist pubs and designer clothing boutiques with a faint gray haze. As if everything is vaguely pleasing but ordinary. There’s something childlike both in my desire to hide and the belief that it is necessary and possible to do so, and I find myself wondering if the skittishness that comes over me when I travel is a version of what everyone feels when she is alone and in a foreign place, or if this feeling speaks to some larger weakness specific to me.
The trampoline park is a long windowless building of springy room-sized black boxes, filled with the dusty chemical smell of partially sanitized grime. Fluorescent light scatters down on us from the rafters, and toddlers shimmy along to Van Halen’s “Jump.” There is a pit of foam blocks, a row of basketball hoops low enough for children to make trampoline-assisted slam dunks, and a dodge ball court that I have rented with university funds for the amusement of my eighteen and nineteen-year old college students. We have been told by the trampoline park’s welcome email to expect “a WOW! experience” as well as the possibility of death, a known risk for which we cannot sue.
That Friday, in preparation for the storm, we leave work in the middle of the day. We fill our cars with gasoline, stock up on coffee and alcohol, check out books from the library, and then come home to peer out our windows and stare up at the sky. This is just snow—thin gray streaks of ordinary snow—but I can’t help it: I’m transfixed.
All night on the local news, the broadcasters glimmer with anticipation. More than a foot,they predict, maybe two. They roll through the highways in news vans while warning us to stay inside. They spend several minutes interviewing a woman about the plastic shovel she is standing in line to purchase. They have the happy unhurried look about them that newscasters often do in the days right before Christmas when they have been granted a reprieve from the stories of gunshots and house fires in order to report on Santa Claus and Christmas lights—a momentary pause in which none of us are asked to care about anything larger than what a child would see.
How much more palatable is any dish when “imbued with the stories of home”? We’re exploring that this month in our recommendations, which variously braid entertainment and education in their reading experiences. Grow as a writer, a poet, a consumer, a human being—and do it while laughing, remembering home, or teetering on the edge of your seat.
The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, The Door by Magda Szabó,Ennui Prophet by Christopher Kennedy, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi
My sister lives in southern Illinois in a town of about 15,000 people called Mt. Vernon, a small town surrounded by acres of empty fields, harvested and shaved bare for the winter. In the villages on either side of the town, mini oil drills bob up and down in the front lawns of small houses and most of the bars have posters tacked to their doors that say “Hunters Welcome” in safety-vest orange. Mt. Vernon itself, though, sits at the intersection of highway 64 and highway 57, and the scenery is often what you’d expect to find at any other small-town stop on a road trip across the middle of the country: hotels, gas stations, fast food, two Mexican restaurants, a Kroger grocery store with a solemn pledge of good service stenciled on the glass window above the shopping carts.
I keep wondering what is strange and what is merely unfamiliar—what is truly inexplicable and what I simply don’t yet understand. For instance, for months, airships from the Aberdeen Proving Ground have floated on the edge of the skyline—two fish-shaped blimps invisibly tethered to the ground, wobbling the way a balloon would travel if it were tied to a post and caught up in the wind. They belong to a military surveillance project being developed by Raytheon to scan the Eastern Seaboard for cruise missiles. For months, I told almost everyone I met about the airships, trying to shock someone, but they almost always shrugged. “I saw those,” they said. “I thought they were weather balloons.”
It’s a small boat with no ladder and so we board by wading into the water, grabbing hold of the edge and pulling ourselves up. Passengers help each other heave themselves forward; a couple older women get lifted like children. Unlike the boat that brought us here, there is no manifest, no recording of passport numbers, no printed tickets—but there is space—kind of—and life jackets, and the men who work on this boat have agreed to take us back to the main port for a reasonable price. The other boats—the one that brought us here and the larger, shinier ones that look more like the ones that brought us here—are full, and it is three thirty, a half hour past the time we have been told all of the boats will be gone.
For the month of August we are revisiting some of our favorite content from the past year. Publication of new work will resume on September 1.
We drive on a gray day in October, a scenic four-hour drive from my new home in Baltimore to my old home in Leechburg, a small steel town in the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, where I lived from ages 8 through 15—the longest stretch of childhood I spent in one location. Though it’s a place I’ve often gone back to in my fiction, I haven’t returned in person in over 15 years. The trip is reconnaissance and romance: scene gathering for a novel and a chance to explore my memory with M.