I sit in the Spirit idling at the corner of Route 59 and Route 52. If I continue south on 59, merge onto 55, merge onto 80, I can get from Paradise to Summit in ten minutes. That’s the cookie-cutter tour—squares of dirt-brown, spring-green, and drought-yellow land sewn together with gravel roads—just like anywhere else in Illinois. When the signal changes I swing the wheel right and take off west down 52.
On the left: two-bedroom 1950s river cottages. A few years ago the river flooded and they were condemned to lie in wait for bulldozers that haven’t come. On the right: the first strip mall in Summit still holds a local ice cream shop, a mom-and-pop pharmacy, and a vacuum cleaner repairman.
The next generations of Paradise roll into view in blocked increments: ’60s split levels and ’70s ramblers and ’80s colonials. Then up on the left the ’90s emerge from what used to be acres of corn and soybean. Row upon row of sprawling miniature mansions, set up so neatly, so deliberately, like they were planted with a seed drill.
I hook a left onto River Road, and then, at the stop-sign intersection of River and Seil, the houses disappear across a twenty-foot span of asphalt, the fields taking over again on the other side. Down River to Mound, and I’ve entered the space between Paradise and Summit. My family’s farmhouse creeps up at the horizon. It has stood there as many generations as I can count back, and though we all try to leave it never works out. Tammy got out when she was seventeen, married my dad, and came back by the time she turned twenty-one. Up until the early ‘60s we were listed as unincorporated Will County, when Paradise started growing in an earnest kind of way and eating up the land that surrounded it. Then the county—or state or whoever takes care of those things—slapped a Paradise street address on us, though no one much cares about this technicality. Town lines may be invisible but they’re solid at the same time, and the Armstrong home belongs to neither Paradise nor Summit.
I crack the window and suck in the deep, heavy August air. It hangs out here like a damp sheet on a clothesline. I push the pedal down a little more, watching the speedometer creep up, as I fly over a set of railroad tracks and down gravel and asphalt paths cut through field after field. Mound to County Line, County Line to Holt. Only the occasional soybean patch relieves the cornfield claustrophobia.
Holt to Wabena. I climb a gradual rise to a set of tracks and the I-80 overpass, where all of Summit lies in front of me: a small bunch of haphazard houses clustered around three silos and two sets of tracks.
I roll down Wabena as the sun sets, watching parents pack their children into minivans along with the remnants of the day: cartons of produce, plastic bags of candy, balloon animals. I roll down Wabena to my high school, turn around in the parking lot, and head back up to the center of town as the sun throws pastels down on wide yellow lawns. I light a cigarette and lean out the window. Full dark is coming on, and the streetlights, designed to look like old-time gaslights, flicker on, dim. I pause next to Cookie’s, the only bar in town.
The din of the day recedes just as the sun sinks below the far horizon and a still quiet envelopes the town, like someone pressed the pause button on a VCR. All the families have cleared out as if to head off a coming plague. No birds whistle like they do sometimes at dusk just as at dawn. The trees stand still and silent in the clouded heat. And then it gets going again as fast as it stopped, the night sounds of a rural town: small voices, soft televisions, crickets. I watch men pull up in pickup trucks to break down the farmer’s market and set up a beer tent in its place. This is the Summerfest they don’t advertise, the Summerfest apart from the market, parade, arts and crafts.
Soon a congregation of middle-aged men and their younger women arrive for PBRs and raucous games of Bingo or low-limit Texas Hold ’Em. Like hounds scenting a rabbit, kids start showing in small groups, trying to pick out the adults from whom they can score a few beers.
A group of girls materializes from the night on the sidewalk across from me. They’re Paradise girls, I can tell right away. One spins a set of keys on her right index finger, probably obtained, willingly or not, from her parents. They all dress alike, mass-produced graphic tees, pre-ripped denim miniskirts. They wear more makeup than they ever would at school. Their eyes too big, too dark, their lips too pink. Five minutes later a matching set of Paradise males walk up: polos with eagles over the left breast, cargo shorts. Their eyes glitter brightly and I know they’re after the girls, to trade opinions of other Summit Highers walking the Fest and maybe even something more. Then come the locals right down the middle of Wabena, girls in thrift-store shirts or plaid Walmart dresses, guys in jeans—not pre-ripped, but ripped in actual, real-life work—and overalls and painter’s pants complete with splatters. They compare the amounts of money they made bussing tables or painting houses over break, money they earned rather than whined out of their parents. They have a rugged rough look to them, these Summiters, but it’s something I like, something real and though I don’t fit in any more with them than I do with the polo-wearing Paradise guys, I get out of the Spirit and fall in step behind. Just until I catch the eyes of some fellow in-betweeners.
Alison Syring is a technical writer and freelance editor. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Master of Arts in Writing Program with a concentration in fiction. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Olde English Bulldogge, and three cats.