Notes on a Ghost Town

A #VQRTrueStory Essay



I made plans to move to Southern Illinois from Chicago in the summer, when people told me it would be drippingly humid, figuring I’d get the worst season of the year out of the way first. Baptism by summer. In the more temperate fall, I’d begin teaching. Like many with my psychiatric diagnosis, I forgot that upheaval of any sort can trigger an episode. Alone in my house in the dense heat, I began to unravel. On my kitchen counter, I laid out the implements of my destruction: things that were sharp, things that would intoxicate. I sent worrisome text messages. The police came. Hours later, I was sitting in a van behind a metal grate, en route to a rural facility. There, in the nursing scrubs I was given, I paced and raved, demanding that I be released. No one listened. Instead, by dinnertime, my lithium levels had been doubled. // Sitting watching Maury Povich in the day room, I told a fellow patient: “I once got manic and heard a woman’s ghost walking around my house.” The woman sitting next to me had browning teeth and a rash of acne. She laughed and said, “Sounds like a bad meth trip.” // She had filled several notebooks: other planets, sex, demons, falling in and out of love. One of her poems was titled simply, “Aloneness.” She had grown up ten minutes from the facility, become addicted to meth along with her boyfriend. The police had taunted and terrorized them, pulling them over at will and beating them if they objected. “They don’t care about us,” she told me. “We’re addicts. We come from the wrong families.” One day her boyfriend disappeared, and a few weeks later his severed torso surfaced in the Shawnee River. The police did little to investigate. “They figured he got what was coming to him,” she said. I said that I taught at the university and could help get her writing published. Her eyes widened. “Yes!” she said, and wrote down her name and phone number. “Add me on Facebook when we get out.” // On her profile, she sold sculptures of sunflowers and dandelions she’d made out of license plates and metal cans. The words make america great again framed her profile photo. I added her, but she never responded to my request.



Several months into quarantine, I walked the length of my town, from the movie theater to the cult-run diner. Most places were closed, but not Andre’s Barbershop. Andre sat smoking on a bench out front; he offered me a cigarette. I’m not a smoker, except under extreme duress, which means I don’t know how to smoke elegantly but I know enough to admire it when I see it. Andre’s cigarette dripped from his lip and he blew spires of smoke from his nostrils. There was no mask tucked under his chin. I adjusted the straps of my own.

“Bad year,” I said. 

He nodded. “But you know, there’s going to be a new Babylon.”

He told me about Yahusha, whose name white people had Anglicized to become “Jesus,” and Yahusha’s promises to the Israelites, who had never been white. He quoted Revelations and asked me what I made of the Roman calendar.

“Just the names of irrelevant emperors,” I offered.

“Exactly,” he said. “White people claim ownership of the kingdom, but after all they’ve done—after the way they treated Yahusha and the way they treated the children of Israel—you can’t say they own it.” “They”—as though I weren’t white myself.

He invited me inside his barbershop. All six chairs stood empty, and the only noise was the electric rumbling of the vending machine. A bumper sticker reading yahusha was wedged in a corner of a mirror. “I’m renting these mirrors, I can’t stick it right on,” he said.

A bald man walked into the barbershop. “I’m telling her about Yahusha,” Andre said. The man gave me a curious look and sat down. Andre pulled up a video called The Truth about God, and the two of them watched it while I listened, leaning against the vending machine. 

“All these politics,” Andre said when the video was over. “These leaders aren’t going to get us any closer to Babylon.”

The bald man made eye contact with me. “You know, generally I think the Democrats are going to make Babylon come faster, but I’m not ready for that. So I voted Republican up and down the ballot.”

Andre scoffed. “Leaders,” he said again.

We sat in silence until two teenage boys wandered in, asking for haircuts.

“Come back in an hour,” Andre said. “We’re studying in here.” 



I drove out to my friend’s small farm to pick up fresh eggs and vegetables and found that she was living exactly as she had before the virus: quietly, tending to her chickens and dogs and watermelons. We sat on her porch and she pointed to her neighbor’s house, separated by a hundred feet and a fence.

“This woman next door, she was having some kind of psychotic episode,” she said. “She tried to attack me when I got too close to her property. We had to go to court about it.”

When my friend went inside to retrieve the eggs, she told me I couldn’t follow. “Don’t want any coronavirus in my house.”  

From the front yard, I watched the neighbor’s house. A woman who looked to be in her midforties sat on a rocking chair on the porch, staring into the rafters. She wore pink rainboots that reached up to her mid-calf. Above her, two children leaned out a dormer window, looking at me. My friend had charged me with watching her pug, who darted out from under my feet as I was sitting on her porch swing. He ran along the fence, in the direction of the neighbor’s house, and I followed him, calling his name. Two pickup trucks full of junk abutted one another in the neighbor’s backyard. The pug ran toward the trucks and I became nervous that we were venturing too close. I got down on my knees and tried calling the pug back. I imagined the woman on the front porch brandishing a gun. This was the kind of situation that would have led to full-blown paranoia if not for the increase in antipsychotics my doctor had prescribed me after my own episode the year before. “It was the psychiatric equivalent of a heart attack,” he told me when I was discharged from the rural hospital. To my relief, the pug waddled back to me. 

On the drive home, I passed through towns that were empty except for a few people sitting on benches or peering out from shop windows. A mother and child walked up the sidewalk, their faces bare. I had grown accustomed to the culture of solitude, found it as navigable as I’d once found a busy city street. But I never got used to the forgottenness of the place, the feeling that to everyone outside the towns, the lives inside were barely lives at all.

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Published: December 3, 2020