back to the Black Table

If you hop on Old State Road, passing Ronchetti Budweiser and the old Broadway Christian Church, and take it out of Mattoon for about three miles, you'll see my Uncle Jimmy's place on the right, and if you take a left on the dirt path just after you cross Lerna Road, you'll be able to drop by and see Uncle Larry and his lovely wife Kay. For the purposes of our trip, however, you'll keep going past that, out to the quiet, open places where all the teenagers go to park, across that rickety one-lane bridge - be careful, because it's only wide enough to barely fit one car - and hang a right just past the Ames house.

There's plenty of history in the Ames house too; an old buddy named Keith grew up there. I graduated with him; good solid guy, from a family of farmers, straight-arrow, married at 22, hard-working. My favorite Keith story was when we were in kindergarten, and he was a typically awkward kid with a pair of Harry Caray glasses that made you think he would fall on his face from the weight every time he walked through the playground. Keith had broken his arm that summer, and just as school started, he developed the chicken pox. Poor kid; he'd get those little itchy bastards right under the cast, so not only did his arm hurt like a sonuvabitch, but he couldn't even scratch those crazy fuckers. You'd see him in the corner of the room, bathed in sweat, shaking, biting his knuckles, trying not to cry. He made it out fine enough, though. And it was so long ago … dude probably doesn't even remember the pain, dulled like circumcision, mercifully happening too young to comprehend.

But you don't stop at the Ames house, not too long, because we've got a final destination. Continue past there, and hang a cautious left - supposedly some teenagers back in the fifties were all shit-faced and took the turn too fast, rolling over and bursting into flames in the ditch that runs up the side; they say their ghosts still haunt the place, though I've never believed that - and it'll be up there on your right.

All right, now get out of the car - no need to lock the door; we're not in New York - and crawl over that little fence that appears to be there for no reason. You've probably noticed by now that we're in a cemetery, one of those old ones with headstones for people who died in 1893. Hope you're not spooked; this is why I asked you to come along with me while it was light out. I've been here plenty … there's nothing to be scared of.

OK … now take, oh, a good 20-25 steps to the left - we're not digging for lost treasure here, you don't have to be exact; ooh, watch out for those flowers though - and look down. You should be looking a row of headstones (if you're not, turn around, doofus). On the far left is a man named Ethan "Whittie" Leitch, a great-great-uncle of mine who died shortly after birth around 1940-something. Apparently, he had some sort of effect on my grandfather, since he called always me, his old fishing buddy, "Whittie" before he died in 1989. To Whittie's right is the headstone for William B. Leitch and his wife Anna, my great-grandparents. Willie B. passed on before I was born, but I used to sit next to Great Grandma in church as a kid, and she lived right across from the old Icenogle's Grocery, back before it burned down. I remember once, when I was about nine, I walked over to Icenogle's after school to get some baseball cards, Topps of course, and ran into her. I helped her carry her bags across the street and held the door for her. She kissed me, gave me a dollar and said, "you be good now, Bryan." I could forgive her getting the name wrong; she was 80-something, she was a year away from a her final check-in at the nursing home and my father's name was Bryan, as was her late husband's.

To the right here, it starts getting dicey. The next headstone, the lavishly crafted and sculpted one, reads William F. Leitch and Dorothy Leitch. This is my grandfather and my as-yet undeceased grandmother (deeply flattering, no? We can all hope someday to be referred to by the phrase "as-yet undeceased"). William F., who went by Bill, was an old railroad man (my one family memento is a pocket watch he kept attached to his belt) who later became one of the higher-ups at Howell Asphalt, a road tarring company that my father once worked for (and where Jimmy and Larry still work). Grandpa Leitch was a beloved figure in Mattoon, respected for his tireless work ethic, unfailing loyalty and rock-solid common sense. He was also known as a bit of a grouch; years down the road, as he lay on his deathbed (still smoking his two packs a day), he wore out nurse after nurse, berating them, running them off. He finally found the only one who could stand him, and vice versa, when his oldest's son's wife, who had gone to nursing school late in life, after the kids were already in school, when it was OK to work again, reluctantly volunteered for the job. They would jive back and forth with one another, but the banter disguised their obvious mutual affection. The woman who changed his bedpan, who regulated his IV, who turned down the TV when it was getting too loud, up until the day he died, was Bryan's wife, Sally, from nearby Moweaqua.

This might come as a surprise to you, since you appear to know me so well already, but I was actually Grandpa Leitch's favorite grandson, and with eight kids, he had plenty. This was partly because I was named after him, of course, just like he had been named after his grandfather, but regardless of family obligation, we bonded almost from the beginning. The whole family - my parents, sister, grandparents and great grandmother - used to go to the First Baptist Church every Sunday, and inevitably, Grandpa and I would be goofing off at the end of the pew. We played Hangman, we wrote notes to each other making fun of my dad, we would make strange, muffled, moderately disgusting noises when no one was looking, then giggled about it and hushed up when Grandma yelled at us.

After church, we would go to a local restaurant called Hoots Haus, whose chicken was as renowned as their discourteous and dawdling service. Grandpa, being the grouch, would enlist me in his quiet rebellion against poor service. He would give me his watch - once, I accidentally left it at the table when we left; my mom scowled at me, but Grandpa just smiled and said he never liked that watch anyway. Funny … Grandma was suddenly scowling at him - and once we placed our order, I would note the time. Grandpa then had me, every time the waitress walked by our table, announce how long it had been. "Seven minutes, 27 seconds." "Fourteen minutes, 37 seconds." He'd just look at the waitress and smile, then pat the six-year-old you just <EM>couldn't</EM> get angry at on the head. And our service ended up always being faster than the other tables.

Grandpa loved to fish. He didn't have some big oversized boat with a deck, a bathroom below and cable TV in case the fish weren't biting. He had a little rowboat that he'd take to one of the various ponds around Mattoon, and he'd just go out there with rod and bait and a radio to listen to the Cardinals game. And I was the only grandson he would fish with. One time, just he and I went out to lunch, and after I begged him for a quarter to play a video game at the Dairy Queen ("Those damn things are worse than gambling," he'd say. "When you put money in a slot machine, at least you got a damned chance to win something back."), he decided to get out the boat. We drove to a nearby pond and plopped it in the water, stopping to pet a stray beagle on the banks, and rowed a bit out. A terrible fisherman, I cast my line a little too close to the pond's edge, and after a few minutes, I heard a horrible yelp. Being a particularly stupid child, I felt my line tug and pulled hard, and the yelp became louder, horrible, pained, piercing. Grandpa realized that the dumb dog had bitten my line and was flailing around, screaming and thrashing. We rowed to shore, and I'll be damned if that stray, untrained dog, upon seeing my grandfather, didn't open his mouth wide like a kid at the dentist and look longingly at him to please, please take this sharp object out of my mouth. Grandpa did, and that dog took off into the woods like the devil hisself was chasing him.

In my years of fishing, that dog was the only thing I ever caught. My dad still doesn't believe that story, but I swear, it's true.

So you see his stone, no? It's amazing how you can't fit everything on a stone that needs to be there. That dog story would be a perfect epitaph. Or the time, when I went to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, where they lived for about a year until they decided they were too far away from Mattoon, that he chased off a big nasty swamp alligator that was scaring the shit out of me while I was pretending to be Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch and bouncing tennis balls off the air conditioner. Honestly, that alligator took off like that dog with the hook in his mouth. Grandpa was strong, veral, caring, simple, straightforward, worshipped by his entire extended family. You can't fit that. You can't even come close.

Instead, you just get his date of birth, date of death and his middle initial (not even the whole name!). And next to him is Dorothy, date of birth, date of death yet to be determined. And occasionally, he'll get some flowers, sometimes from me.

OK, let's keep moving. This is where it starts getting a little creepy, so bear with me. To William F. Leitch's and Dorothy Leitch's direct right … a stone that echoes the one that came two stops before it. There is the plot, with open spaces waiting to be filled, for William B. Leitch and his lovely wife, Sylvia Kathleen. These are my parents. I've never asked my parents exactly how long they've had this place all set up for them, had this imposing stone eagerly anticipating their arrival, and I'm in no hurry to. William B. was born in Mattoon, went to high school there, visited this very same cemetery to honor his grandfather and this mysterious Whittie character. Don't worry about messing up the ground; it'll all be dug up again, hopefully not sometime soon. The stone just sits there … with the date of birth, August 6, 1949, chiseled with anticipation, and the date of death empty. For now. My father has known since he was a boy where he would be buried. He knew that he had nowhere else to go. He lives still in Mattoon, where he has raised a family and cultivated a life that would be the envy of many, including myself. He doesn't like to leave Mattoon, whether it is to visit his daughter at the University of Illinois or to visit his son, making chaos in New York City. This is his land. He's not going anywhere.

He has three brothers and four sisters, and to be honest, I really don't know where they're planning on being buried. For some reason, the family tradition is naming its firstborns after their grandfathers, making Dad, technically, William Bryan Leitch II. And that tradition means being buried in the family cemetery, next to their fathers and their wives and their grandfathers and their namesakes, their place picked for them long before they understood even what it meant, destined (sentenced?) to Mattoon for eternity, where the Leitch boys are supposed to be. Where they want to be.

You might have an idea where this is going. My name, dear readers, is Will Leitch, or William F. Leitch, or William F. Leitch III. I am the son of William B. Leitch and Sylvia Kathleen, of rural Mattoon, and the grandson of William F. and Dorothy Leitch, and the great-grandson of William B. and Anna Leitch.

It's too gruesome to face … but you must.

Because, if you'll kindly take a look over to your right, there it is. Right now it's just a free space, might easily be mistaken for a open area, where you can grow grass or plant flowers or simply play in the dirt. There -- not there, not yet anyway - is no headstone, nothing placed there to make you think it's anything but dirt. A headstone shall be place there, it's already been picked out and paid for and fussed over and everything. I think I've probably only stepped on that area three or four times myself - go ahead, step there, it's fine, not disturbing anyone, not yet -- and that's just when I've been aimlessly frittering about, wondering why I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon at a cemetery. But there's a good chance I'll get to know the area pretty well.

I will be buried there. It is my space, all paved out and reserved, just for me, and my presumed eventual wife. It has been saved for me since my parents had the thought that I would exist.

Actually, that's not exactly true. In August 1973, almost exactly 26 months before I was born, my mother gave birth to a son. It was the first child of William B., 21, and Sylvia Kathleen, 20, married June 19, 1971. His name at birth, of course, was to be William Franklin Leitch, after his grandfather, after his great-great-grandfather. The name was all ready to be set in ink on the birth certificate. The young couple planned on building a new home in Mattoon, out in the country part of town (as if there were any other), with a room and a crib and a matching wallpaper and a little table for changing diapers.

But something went horribly wrong. The infant escaped my mother's womb … and he was gone. Dead, right on the spot. Dude never even opened his eyes. Never had a chance. My mother shot him out, and next thing you knew, a corpse lie there on the doctor's slab. He'd come out all wrong, this poor sad dead baby. There is some sort of fatal condition he had, something the doctors made very sure, most sure, to check for when Sylvia Kathleen's next baby came around, but, for the likes of me, I can't tell you what it was. I think my sister knows. I've always been afraid to ask, myself.

This poor sad dead baby, this kid whose world was taken away from him before he even had a chance to see it (the kid never once got to see Central Park in June), lost not only his life, but his name. Once it became clear the family tradition, the family name, would not be able to continue, the Leitchs went into action. Suddenly, William Franklin became Keith Vincent. He does get a spot in the cemetery - look, he's up a couple spots, small stone, small boy - but by dying, he forfeited his rights. He gets a substitute name.

That makes me scab labor. I've swiped the kid's name, pilfered his identity. I'm Sean Payton, replacement player, fill-in quarterback for the Chicago Bears for three games during the 1987 season. Sure, he wore the uniform with Payton on the back, and he even threw a couple of touchdown passes. But we all knew he wasn't the real quarterback. He just had a brief chance because the real guy was gone. The guy who was supposed to be there.

Which just means I enjoy a bigger plot, built for two. I called ahead for reservations, and I got 'em. Whatever road I take, I know where it ends. What happens in between now and then, it's all just details, filler.

I left Mattoon, the city in which I grew up and which held everything all I knew and held dear and not-so-dear, seven years ago, in August 1993. When I was a young man, all I knew was getting out, fighting to see more of the world out there, wondering if there indeed was some sort of life outside the rural community I called home. I fought against what had been expected of me. I wanted more. What more I wanted was never clear; just that I wanted it. Since then, I've lived in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York City. And it was all a waste of time.

You see, no matter what, no matter how the story plays itself out, I end up back here, in the ground, back in Mattoon, next to my parents and their parents and their parents. Back where I started. There is no escaping it. I can pretend small town life is in my past, that I'm a sophisticated urbanite now, that I know how to use the subways and everything. But it's no use.

Because Mattoon still has me. It knows I'll end up back there anyway. It's willing to wait me out. It's just a matter of time.

So, now that I come to think of it, yeah, try to watch where you step.



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