When I was born, my hometown of Golconda, Illinois, on the border between Illinois and Kentucky, had about seven hundred citizens. In the twenty-odd years between then and now, Golconda has deflated to five hundred people, and more and more houses lay abandoned. Houses are never really torn down back home, they just fall in on themselves, a reminder of something beautiful that once stood proudly. And any of the ministers at our many, many town and country churches will tell you that pride goes before a fall.
Golconda’s old people will gladly remind you the town was full once, with plenty of businesses and enough money to fix broken things. This was before the railroad shut down, leaving us “alone at the edge of the world,” as my mother would say. Most of Golconda’s people are old. They are the type who love our town the most, who go to the Dari Barr (our local diner that looks the same now as when it was built in the 1940s) for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. One old man goes there daily for all three of his meals. Golconda’s old are the type who relish going to Sunday school and church on Sunday mornings, and Bible study on Wednesday nights, week after week after week. They are the type with an unshakeable faith in the holiness of life’s simplicity, and the grand beauty of what comes next.
The ones who don’t live in town come in from their farms for errands or visits with friends. Afterward, they will drive down and eventually turn around on the dead-end road overlooking the Ohio river that separates us from Kentucky. We call it cruising, and for us it’s a common pastime. It’s not even just the old people who do it. In fact, people of all ages and washes of denim like to cruise each and every corner of the county, taking in the rushing waters of the river and the creeks, as well as the yellow daffodils by the side of the road. Another sign of something once gone, where there are daffodils out in the country there was once a farm. Even if wilderness has overtaken everything else, daffodils in a careful arrangement by the road are a clear sign of human hands.
From fall to spring, the high schoolers lucky enough to have cars cruise before and after class in the old brick building past a field of cows on the highway. The old people who’ve settled into retirements of comfortable satisfaction wait to cruise until the kids are cooped up for the day. That is, until summer comes. When summer comes, the old and the young blend together, squinting at the burning sun just the same in rusty pickup trucks.
The old people may only have patience for county limits, but the young people dream of escaping them, of going to college far away as soon as they leave high school for the last time. They want to become one of “them,” one of those young elite they don’t truly understand. They want to live in towns where not everyone knows their name and every sin they’ve committed since they were five years old. It’s a beautiful dream, to live and breathe with no baggage attached.
As for the young people who stay, who don’t get to leave for the great elsewhere (and you do have to leave quickly and emphatically if you plan to leave at all, because it sucks you in and swallows you whole), they grow old before their time. A pregnant belly begins to grow, and soon enough nursing degrees are hung up like a dress that never fit and replaced by houses full of crying babies. The fathers who are usually just as young and scared as the mothers have to abandon whatever dreams they had to support their families, usually working labor jobs or joining the military.
Golconda’s residents are more comfortable with death than most city folks, as is the way with small-town southerners. (And though we are technically on the north side of the border, anyone from Golconda will tell you we really are southerners. Our accents will concur.) One of my family’s favorite places to go on walks is the local cemetery, on a bluff above the river. It’s always peaceful there, a land of the dead with signs of life everywhere, from the grass and flowers to the deer or rabbits you might see walking among graves. The proudest headstone, that of one of Golconda’s wealthier former residents, is a huge statue of an angel, easily visible as you approach in your car or on foot. Golconda’s people devoutly believe in these angels and the God who created them.
Ghost stories abound in Golconda as well, of the tragically young or tragically unfulfilled dead carrying on their afterlives in the only town they ever knew. When you’re walking down a quiet street and you feel a passing patch of air colder than the air surrounding it, anyone from Golconda will say you passed through a ghost, or they passed through you. So our dead are either away in heaven or still walking among us, whatever suits the story best. Perhaps they can be both. Surely the dead don’t play by our rules of space and time.
In my youth, I became as comfortable with death as I was fascinated by it, even wanting to be a mortician for a bit. When I comb through pictures of college students in black and white in the archives where I work now, I often think about how I wound up working with the dead anyway. I’m just staring into their smiling faces instead of beautifying their unbreathing bodies. I have noticed the longer I’m away from Golconda, the less comfortable with death I become, as if something deeply spiritual within me weakens the closer I am to the city.
This isn’t to say I regret leaving Golconda behind for a higher education and a fuller life. I like to say my relationship with Golconda is a dysfunctional love affair. As a child, I was happy and free, running barefoot through the yard with wind in my hair and sun on my skin. As a teenager, I became angry toward the town that had more of an influence on me than anything else. All I wanted was to get out. I managed it too, getting into a good college a five and a half hour drive north from the only home I had ever known.
But through the end of my sophomore year I was homesick enough to land me in therapy (or the homesickness was among a myriad of other reasons I wound up in therapy, anyway). It wasn’t until recently that I accepted I wouldn’t be able to move back home to spend the rest of my days there after I graduated college. This came soon after my realization that I am transgender; a lifetime supply of injectable testosterone would not be easy to come by in a conservative little town.
When I go back now, I seldom stay longer than a week. As I spend time with my family, which now includes four nephews and three nieces, walking by the river and through the cemetery as we listen to the crickets sing, I am at peace. When I go to the Dari Barr with my old high school friends who are still around and want to hear all about my adventures, I feel like a novelty. I am what they could have been if they were braver, or maybe if they were just stranger. A part of me likes being so interesting to people. But when I return from these outings, back to the childhood home my family still owns but no longer inhabits, the quiet is so deep I’m afraid I’ll never escape it again, even though just the next morning there are eyes waiting to see me, mouths waiting to say hello and ask me more of the same questions about my fancy city life. It all feels like something out of a southern gothic novel, and in fact there’s one novel in particular that my hometown reminds me of.
Set years after To Kill a Mockingbird yet written long before it, Go Set a Watchman features twenty-six year-old Jean Louise Finch (in her childhood known as “Scout”) returning to her fictional hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. There, she has to face just how much her progressive ideals and city experiences clash with the town she has always known and loved. In the midst of an argument with her father, she says, “…there’s no place for me anymore in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.” This quote can never help but remind me of Golconda.
Maybe it’s good to have both, the city where I spend most of my time now and the town I will never be able to shake off. The city has my job, my school, and the people I spend most of my waking hours with. But Golconda will always be where I go for peace. Even if there’s no permanent place for me there anymore, I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.
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