How to Love a Prairie Town
by Evelyn Coffin
Runestone, volume 3
for Colton Whitehead
Don’t go there in the daytime: it doesn’t feel safe to be seen by those that shudder past. Wander instead at night, toward midnight, east. Feel that tang in the air, that coal dust, that way station glitter. What is it about this town then, all stacked up around these tracks. Houses marooned on dying yards. It feels like black cats out here, like weeping willows. If you’ve done it right you’ve brought someone with you and you kiss them while the train screams past. Maybe the conductor watches. Do trains still have conductors one of you asks. Neither of you knows. Either way. Alone or together. Put your hand on the track, feel the next train shoving its way toward you in the night. That’s called loneliness.
Something about the word arid reminds you of this street. Or maybe the other way around. When you picture it, you picture it in high summer at high noon. The sidewalk glaring at you glaring at it. The word grit also, beside the arid, the sagging buildings’ Jenga blocks. Well-painted, but not well-stacked. Big tired-drunk grandmother Main Street, falling asleep in her cups, at noon. Walk down it: receive her whistles. Arid wind blows the skirt around your arid thighs and you feel like a queen. Your subjects, the walk-sign men. Your kingdom, the scratchy streets, the empty-eyed storefronts. Your own reflection in the empty windows.
Jazz makes your mouth feel warm like kissing, and you look for someone to tell this to. Everyone’s to and fro, sliding around. Articulating. The door like a paddle in a pinball machine flipping people in and out. Join the racket, try to bum a smoke outside. A light. A drink. Tell everyone you want to dance, but there’s no room. Settle for a leather seat and shoulders, shaking. Ice swirling like notes, bartenders asking, are you done yet, but the ice the best part. Jazz makes you lose your mind, but inside itself. You look for someone to tell this to but the someone you found before has just been flipped out the door. You’ll follow, but only after the next elongated song, reddening the corners of the bar, has ended.
Don’t worry, you’ll figure this one out. But it’ll figure you out first. Mess you up. Make your nose work harder than the trains out there, slugging past all that snow. So much snow. It piles up and then dirties, laundry-like. Laundry’s not your favorite, is it. Neither is winter. Apples in the cheeks only go so far. No worries. All is well. Get out in it, sooner or later, or just roll yourself up in a blanket and cry. We all have our ways of dealing with it. Hear tell of someone who shot himself in the basement one winter: not enough sun, said the note. His windows faced north, like yours. We all have our ways of dealing with it; he dealt with it, but good.
After midnight we delight in burning our mouths. On each other, on bottlenecks, on those jazz-hot train tracks. Bodies: propellers. Dance on the glass in the street. Hope to fall through. Take care—you’ll lose your keys under the magnolia tree. Again. That grate has it in for you, I tell you. The street a filthy river holding you up. Run into people you’d like to kiss by pure coincidence and by going to the places you know they’ll be. Say, isn’t this a coincidence! We love coincidences don’t we. Walk home. Alone. Stand in the middle of the amber street and consider: why do streetlights make you feel so full.
Wonder does the poor thing ever get tired. Do the bones underneath it ache. Do the stairs ever want to shuffle off to their mortal coil but no, surely not, they’re just getting old, that’s all. Slack. A little bit soft. Not like the bodies inside of it, no, not most of them. The bodies inside of it are going to stay like they are, forever and ever and ever. Writing on the chalkboards. Wearing down the stairs. Touch the fading brick. Caress it. You are one of its own children. After the requisite number of years, leave it, and try your hardest not to come back.
Evelyn Coffin writes and studies film at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She is grateful for all prairie towns, everywhere.