As I approached my twenty-first birthday I became convinced that unseen forces were conspiring to make my home town neat, orderly, and utterly devoid of life.
The cracks in the ceiling resembled a map of Eastern Europe. My brother snored on the other side of our shared bedroom; his two pet rats scuffled in the galvanized tin washbasin they called home. Hormones were percolating all over the place.
I blinked at the alarm clock--5 a.m.--and burst from the covers like a prisoner freed from shackles. I crept downstairs, stepping gingerly over the creaky fifth stair. I practically flung myself through the front door, expecting to see a troupe of gnomes at work, cleaning, making everything look the same, and sprinkling the sleeping inhabitants with fairy dust designed to make them compliant and terminally satisfied.
Out of the corner of my eye, it seemed I did see subtle shapes scurrying into the bushes. One bush shivered, either from the wind or an unseen farm. Then all was still. An air conditioner rumbled. Dry leaves rattled along the pavement. A lone sparrow cheeped weakly and returned to sleep.
I got in the habit of waking before the sun rose and hurrying downstairs. I sneaked out through the back door and crept around the corner of the house. Once, I definitely saw a shape disappear into the neighbor’s hedge. I hurried after it in my pajamas and bare feet. By the time I reached the front edge of the hedge, which was only a couple of seconds, the shape was at the end of the next set of hedges. I only saw a dark form and some shivering in the leaves. The dark shapes seemed to be moving with superhuman speed.
All at once there was a final rustling in the bushes. The night was still again.
In the daylight, the suburban streets seemed to hold traces of the Unhappy Dust that infected the docile inhabitants. Like a herd of gloomy sheep, each man gave each wife an identical dry-as-paper peck on the cheek. They shuffled to their old, rusting muscle cars, aging GTOs, Dodge Challengers. These were blue collar men, the mechanics and boiler repair crews of the Chicago metropolitan area. Starters clicked, flywheel teeth ground, engines rumbled to life. Exhaust hung in the dead August air as each man hurried off alone to spend the day wrestling with machines.
Children burst from slapping wooden screen doors. They jumped cowboy-style on their Big Wheel tricycles. They rode up and down the sidewalks, plastic wheels clattering on the cracks, like miniature versions of their fathers--except that their faces bore identical mindless grins. Women talked, smoked, frowned, inspecting one another's footwear. Students labored toward bus stops under the weight of backpacks. Only the children smiled. Everyone over the age of, say, seven showed the same grim, expressionless face to the world. Why weren't the children affected by the fairy dust? What thoughts preoccupied the residents and prevented them from smiling? Was anything going on behind the downcast eyes, the furrowed brows, the hurried steps? Why was nobody happy in this town? What kept all these people in their cold, isolated orbits?
A jet rumbled in for a landing at nearby O'Hare Airport. I stared intensely at the flies that were already buzzing in the humid air. I stepped hurriedly--eyes downcast, brow furrowed--realizing I must look exactly like everyone else as I followed the bushes in the direction of the dark shapes I had seen the night before.
I longed to know what, if anything, was going on behind the closed doors, the half open windows. There must be some sort of life unfolding in the little brick houses, because I saw little sign of it in front, in the still and sooty air. The hedges lined the houses, one after another, in almost continuous rows, each property well defined, each resident's territory separated from those on either side with a sort of green skin. They ended at the area of squat factories, offices, and warehouses that had recently been built up just south of the neighborhood--our "industrial park." In this park no trees grew. Only a network of streets and driveways and boxlike buildings stood atop the fields and hills where my friends and I had played as children. Here, we had chased grasshoppers, opened milkweed pods, and made forts. Now the fields and trees and hills had been flattened and buried beneath stone and concrete—except for one small plot in a corner, next to the highway, where weeds grew and a single cottonwood tree stood, crooked and gnarled and with several of its limbs cut back by landscapers.
The crickets stopped as I walked toward this last remaining patch of prairie. I stood at the edge, on the curb and looked down. The earth dipped down and disappeared into darkness, obscured by weeds, tall grass, and flowers. The foliage shivered, and then I shivered. I knew this was where the gnomes had disappeared. I walked back home past rows of identical brick houses lined up like so many pieces on a Monopoly board, all the same dull brick color, with 4 windows and two doors and one or two cars in the driveway. Here in the bright sunlight the town seemed utterly uninspiring. I had to do homework for my college classes, and my column for the local newspaper was due by the end of the day.