Good Letters

20111021-pride-and-progress-by-allison-backous-troyMy family moved to Sauk Village when I was eight years old. The town rode the border between Illinois and Indiana, an hour south of Chicago; its town motto was Pride and Progress, stamped on a blue concrete sign flanking the intersection of Sauk Trail and 394, the westernmost edge of town.

We didn’t know that the motto was a joke, my siblings and I. We were young enough to be excited about the move, and old enough to imagine possibilities: I drew pictures of my future neighbors, little black girls in pink jumpers, holding my hand.

And when we actually moved, we came through the back of town, at dusk, the Pride and Progress sign out of sight, our neighbors’ rotting siding cloaked by a gentle, apologetic twilight. As if the night itself were sad at what the town needed help concealing.

Our neighbors were friendly at first. There were Kate and Dale, the Irish Catholic couple who had six boys, who drank beers with my mom and let us hide in their basement during thunderstorms. Mom used to call Kate while my dad was at work, giggling loudly over her Heineken. “You don’t even know, Kate!” she would shriek while we watched TV, pretending not to notice.

And there were Tomasita and Randy, who lived right next door. Randy was tall, thin, white, a mullet sticking out from the sides of his baseball cap. And Tomasita was a round Mexican woman, who always wore netted stockings beneath her shorts, and who spent the days on the front porch, smoking and watching her kids.

We would play together sometimes, Tomasita’s kids and us, drawing hopscotch corners and stick figures with chalk on the sidewalk between our houses. Sometimes I would tattle on the youngest kids to watch them get in trouble, and got a strange thrill out of watching them get yanked into the house.

I don’t know why the kids kept playing with me—it was like we had no choice but to be together, even if there was something about our play that was stretched too thin, that lacked some basic joy. That thrummed with a stale, latent anger.

One afternoon, while I drew more squares on our driveway, Tomasita came rushing over to our yard, the anger we had felt, but couldn’t name, pouring out of her mouth.

“You got a lot of nerve, Barb,” she spat at my mother, who had been pulling weeds out of the strawberry plants, “doing what you did.” My mother stared at her, eyes blank with shock. Tomasita cursed in Spanish for a full five minutes. She spun and waddled into her house, her tights webbed across her thighs.

“I have no idea why she is so angry,” my mother said, weeds gathered in her hand. “What did we do?”

We had no idea what set Tomasita off; for the next two years, Randy and Tomasita ignored us, even though their kids would wave meekly from the porch, shouldering backpacks in the morning while we got ready for school ourselves.

But the question my mother asked—“what did we do?”—was the one that we would ask throughout our whole time in Sauk Village, as our life continued to accumulate other angers. We began keeping to ourselves, stopped playing outside and even ignored Kate, who divorced Dale and moved her boys to Mantino, another suburb to the south.

And whatever we had been centering ourselves on, whatever claims we laid to family and to each other, continued their slow slouching towards an end we couldn’t help but silently await, even if all we could feel was that stale, thin apprehension.

Randy and Tomasita ended up divorced, and moved out of the house. It sat abandoned, and I used to sneak into the backyard in the afternoons, stealing silence beneath the giant willow tree that absorbed most of their backyard.

I would twist the willow wands into wreaths, and hang them in the abandoned patio, which I swept every afternoon, shaking spiders out of corners with a leftover broom.

It was there that I began writing, my afternoons spent wrapped in my coat on the cold concrete floor. I would blast a Bob Dylan Greatest Hits tape from my giant black boom box, which I won in a “states and capitals” contest at school, and write poems about the stray cats that nestled in the garage, the dandelions gone to cloud. The things I felt that my words felt too small to speak to, too slight to scratch the surface of the world I lived in, the kind of life I longed for.

It was a center I could hold, or at least, the beginnings of one. In a single autumn, I filled a whole binder full of words. Words that would keep scratching at the surface of things, words that would, one way or another, lead to my salvation.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Allison Backous Troy


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