back to the Black Table

 My mother watches CourtTV. Religiously. It is always fascinating to me to see what empty-nest parents do once their kids are entirely out of the house and their hair, and my mom is into CourtTV.

Currently, she’s into the Rae Carruth trial (for those of you who don’t watch CourtTV, Rae Carruth is a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers who is accused of hiring friends to kill his pregnant wife). I’m not into trials all that much, but I am into football, and since Rae Carruth had to be dropped from my fantasy team once he was arrested, I’m hoping they nail the guy. Mom says he has a fantastic lawyer, but that the evidence is stacking up. It’s a death penalty trial, though, and as a strong anti-capital punishment advocate, she’s torn. She wants him to be punished for the crime she’s convinced he committed, but she doesn’t want him to be executed for it. This is must-see television. Dad can’t stand it. It’s the only channel she watches.

On a visit - my parents’ place is about seven miles from my temporary residence at cousin Denny’s - I walk to the fridge, grab a Diet Coke and sit down in the chair next to Mom. She knows all the lawyers by name. “This Thompson guy is good. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to try to impeach the dead woman. Before she died, she scrawled Carruth’s name on a sheet of paper for the nurse. But dead pregnant women make pretty unimpeachable witnesses.” She pauses. “Do you want a sandwich or something? I can fix you a toasted cheese. We have some pot roast in the fridge if you want to warm that up. Here, let me get you a blanket. It’s cold in here.” She doesn’t quite seem comfortable with me in the house. Her quiet time has been disturbed. She feels compelled to be Mom. She keeps getting up and moving around, picking something up, setting it down, wiping off the table, dusting the dog. With someone around, she’s relentlessly restless.

My dad plays video poker. In the new house he built, he has fashioned the basement as a home for his long-dormant id. There are bar posters and neon lights all over the walls. An enormous Chicago Bears mural hangs next to the bar he’s installed. A blonde in a bikini is straddling a Miller Lite bottle. My father drinks only Natural Light, no hard alcohol, but nevertheless the bar is stacked with whiskey and vodka bottles, for decorative purposes. They are filled not with liquor, but colored water that has been sitting around for months. I find this out the hard way.

Dad has set up an entertainment center down there, with a huge TV, stereo surround sound and access to the satellite dish. Every time his beloved Illinois men’s basketball team is playing, he runs upstairs, grabs a six-pack, sits at the bar and screams at the television. The Illini have one of their best teams ever this season, but Dad is never satisfied. Illinois games are glorious routines of obscene verbal gymnastics for my father, and even if the game is boring, he never is. “Jeee-zus Ka-RYST! God-DAMN it, McClain! Pass the goddamn ball! Son - Of - A - BITCH!” My favorite part is when Illinois is trailing late and appear likely to lose. Dad, who has been setting off Richter scales in Iowa every time point guard Frank Williams misses a shot and has developed a frightening vein that sticks out about six feet from his forehead, begins to rationalize. “You know, this isn’t really that big of a game. If they lose, they’ll be fine.” If the Illini mount a comeback, he begins jumping up and down again. I’ve never seen my father jump in life. Only during Illini and Cardinals games. I’ve watched every Illini game with my father this year, and I can tell you that they’re really good, and that my father knows them better than coach Bill Self does. Except he keeps calling Corey Bradford “Kiwane Garris,” who played for Illinois four years ago.

But the highlight of the basement is his poker machine. It’s set up in the corner, out of the way, but you can’t miss it. It flashes, beeps, sets off sirens. It’s simple, just like any old poker machine. If you get two kings, or a flush, you have the option of trying to double your points in a game fittingly called “Double Up.” You have to guess if the next card is higher than seven or not. Every time you guess correctly, a digital picture of a naked woman pops up. Dad grins mischievously. “I have to shut those off when the neighbor kids come over.” I have tried to learn the game myself, but I always try to double up once too often and end up losing everything. Dad had 10,000 points before I arrived. He now has a shade over five.

Dad is addicted to this game. One night, when Mom was working all night at the hospital, he called me at Denny’s. “Hey, I’m over at the VFW. Want to grab a beer?” The VFW is my father’s favorite watering hole, though I always imagine Marines giving him wedgies for being an Air Force man. I braved the cold and drove the six blocks, because nobody walks in Mattoon. Dad was sitting at the poker machines. In fact, he was sitting at the exact same poker machine he has at home. Except he was putting money in it this time. Twenty after twenty after twenty. This is not Vegas; this machine does not give money back. But off they went, twenty, twenty, twenty. He even asked me if he could use a 20-spot when he ran out so he didn’t have to run to the ATM. I watched my Dad drop 100 bucks into a machine that doesn’t even pay out. And he looked away from the screen only to brag to the bartender, who was watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, that I was once on a game show. Then I had to launch into that goddamned story again. Dad chuckles at that story every time. He can’t help it.

Denny is waiting to hear about a job. Two years ago, Denny was attending Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, our sister city, and studying to become an elementary school teacher. Denny would be a great teacher. He has a naturally gentle quality about him, and he’s the first to admit he’s just a big kid himself. When he was student-teaching, every kid loved him, and he even took time out to bring out his guitar and play songs he’d written for every single student.

But student-teaching jaded Denny. He saw the way the old teachers were, the way they trashed “the little brats,” the way they never tried to connect with the quiet kids, the way they just seemed to have stopped caring. The nasty old ladies, the ones who would tell the kids to read a chapter of the textbook and then leave class an hour early to smoke in the lounge, they drove Denny crazy. They appeared, thanks to the saturation, to actually hate children. One teacher even smacked a kid on the wrist and then told him to stop crying.

Denny had just one semester left before earning his degree. He didn’t even have to attend class. He only had to student-teach for one semester, and he’d have his bachelor’s and his teaching certificate. But the more he thought about it, the more queasy it made him feel. He didn’t want to end up like those old ladies. He liked kids. There was something pure and fun about it; it felt like you were making a little bit of a difference. But not at that cost. He couldn’t work with people like that anyway. He knew they would all hate him, because all the kids loved him.

So he quit. Just eight weeks of student-teaching away, and he dropped out. Friends tried to talk him out of it, but they just didn’t understand. It wasn’t worth it. Denny, living in a house his parents own, milled around for a while, doing odd jobs. He even applied to work at the factory his father had worked out for 30 years, but he failed the drug test, which was fine, he didn’t want that job anyway. He settled into a series of janitorial jobs, ideal for Denny. He just wanted to do his job and be left alone.

He was laid off about two weeks before I arrived, from some pointless job he hated. He has the financial pillow of his parents, but Denny is 25 years old, smarter than shit and a proud man. Recently, our friend Shad, a teacher in nearby Pesotum, told Denny of a position at the school, helping learning-disabled kids with various tasks around the school. Shad, like me, thought it would be good for Denny, maybe respark that urge to teach. Denny applied.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t heard back from the principal. There are two possible reasons for this:

1) The position has been filled, or they won’t be hiring anyone until after the New Year.

2) Some guy, who has been staying with Denny rent-free for almost two months now, messing up his apartment, dirtying his dishes, is online all the time, making the line busy.

Denny never says a word about this. He is quiet and unassuming. He just wants to find a little peace. But he has to wonder ... am I missing this job because of Will, whom I’ve opened my home to?

It is clear, now more than ever, that it is time for me to go. I have been in this hometown of mine for nearly two months, and on December 27, I return to New York. My book is almost (not quite) finished, and I have found some peace myself, temporarily silencing the self-loathing demons that unemployment in New York allowed to surface.

But it was hubris of me to think that Mattoon, and my friends and family in it, would just be waiting around for me. I went from a novelty - “Will’s writing a book about Mattoon in Mattoon!” - to an annoyance, quickly. I have squatted here for too long.

How pompous of me to think I could just use Mattoon as my personal Walden Pond. That my presence - after all, I come from New York City! - would be some sort of blessing for everyone around me. I have interrupted other people’s lives, been all up in their business, caused them problems just because I couldn’t handle my own.

Mattoon is not just a joke for my columns anymore, the butt of a quick “Hick Boy Makes Good” one-liner. It is a place that demands to be taken seriously. Because when I needed help, shelter, silence ... I came here. At the end of the day, rationalize it as I might, I slept in Mattoon, not New York or Los Angeles or St. Louis. This was where I lived ... because it was the only place that would have me. There is nothing funny about a warm home, a nurturing family, lifelong friends, people who will take care of you and watch your back when you need it. It was offensive for me to think that there was. I’ve idled for two months here, but Denny, my parents, the citizens, they haven’t. They’ve moved along, breathing, eating, sleeping, laughing, crying, living, just like everybody else everyplace else. This city is a home.

People have their own lives here, and perhaps, dear reader, it is time to get back to mine.



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