back to the Black Table

After a whirlwind weekend involving an old friend's wedding, a 15-inning Cardinals loss at Wrigley Field and a recently engaged pal asking me to be his best man - I plan on being the first best man in history to serve a toast in the form of a dirty limerick - I took an Amtrak from Chicago back home to Mattoon, for a much-needed week of cloudless skies and endless cornfields.

As previously scheduled, I called my cousin Denny, who was picking me up at Mattoon's deserted, depressing train station. My fine Southern Illinois town has been decimated by two unfortunate developments of the past 50 years: the country's complete (and baffling) indifference to train travel, and the Hitler-through-Poland-like march through our nation's midsection by the most evil conglomerate of our lifetime, Wal-Mart. When I was growing up,


downtown Mattoon was once a thriving, charming main drag; all the grocery stores and movie theaters and taverns and mom-and-pop bookstores were all stacked up perfectly down Broadway, and at the end of the road was the train station, boarding the historic City of New Orleans train all the way up to Chicago. Then everyone started buying SUVs and, worse, started shopping at Wal-Mart. The demon spawn of Sam Walton set up a huge megalomaniacal complex right off Interstate 57, and its let's-buy-a-some-hamburger-meat-and-a-garden-hose! effect was immediate and total. Within a year, all the family-owned shops downtown closed, the two-screen moviehouse was torn down for a generic multiplex just off the highway and, worst of all, they built a Cracker Barrel. Downtown Mattoon is nothing but tumbleweeds now, with the signs still up on all the shut-down taverns, with the broken windows and intricate cobwebs. Downtown Mattoon is just another place that's too far off the highway for anyone to bother with; we're a truck stop town now.

Anyway. I called up Denny and told him I was in Champaign, about 50 miles north of Mattoon, and he should be ready to pick me up in an hour. I have known Denny longer than I have known any human outside my immediately family, and we have the bond of family blending flawlessly with the bond of friendship. Plus, we're among the eight or nine people of my high school graduating class who are not married, which might disturb my grandmother but serves us both just fine. Denny has lived alone in a house right next door to his parents' home for about four years, and he lives a rather isolated, structured life. He works as a teacher during the day, works out all night and rides professional motorcross on the weekends. It's not that he particularly likes being single; it's just a part of who he is, like blue eyes, or a neck mole. He rarely dates, once every year or so, and they inevitably end in bewildering disaster, mainly because Denny is Denny is Denny, and that's a circle women often find more difficult to break than is necessarily worth their time.

So when Denny told me he was bringing a girl with him to pick me up, it perked my interest. His dating habits have veered toward the dromedary in recent years -- one relationship, then two years off, then another one -- so a new girl was a big deal, indeed. I was surprised this was the first I'd heard of it. Her name was Liz.

My train pulled in and there they were. I hugged Denny hello, he took one of my bags and I turned to Liz. She looked like any 28-year-old single Midwesterner: eyes slightly yearning, blond frizzy hair and a tired, weary face disguised by pained, unending cheerfulness. She struck me immediately as very sweet, simple, kind … and heartbreakingly desperate.

You have to understand the way things work out here. In New York, when you're 28 years old, you haven't even started your life yet. In Mattoon, it feels like it's already over. Particularly for a single woman. Mattoon is a place where people marry their high school sweethearts … sometimes when they're already in high school. When my mother was 28, I was four. By the time you've reached 28 around here, if you're still a single woman, 65 percent of your conversations are about finding a good man, often guised in the "it's about time to settle down and set some roots" veil. (In case you were wondering, I completely pulled that statistic out of my ass. Ballpark figure. You get the point.) And considering most of your friends are married and have little else to do but pay bills, watch reality TV and dispose of baby poo, they're more than happy to set you up with every single guy that they know.

That's what happened with Liz and Denny, of course. This friend talked to that friend, hey, what about Liz, she needs to take care of somebody, and Denny, jeez, he desperately needs to be taken care of, heck, let's introduce them. The dynamic of their relationship was so powerfully obvious, I think it smelled of sulfur. As I stood in Denny's kitchen, smoking a cigarette and chatting with them both, she started rifling through his cabinets. Denny is a single man living alone. His cabinets contained a coffee strainer, a sander, a power drill, some paper plates and a couple of forks. She brushed her hands through his hair and commented that he could use a haircut. She asked him where the vacuum cleaner was; he clearly didn't have one. And, in the highlight of the conversation, she spoke plainly to me about how happy she was to meet me, because "family is so important."

She then turned to Denny. "Don't you think family is important?" To me: "I think Denny needs to think more about family, and how important it is. Don't you think?" Stunned, a tried to steer the conversation to more manageable levels. I asked them, since Denny had kept me in the dark, how long they'd been seeing each other. Denny took a swig of beer. "What, Liz, this is our fourth date? Is that right?" She nodded, then brushed a piece of lint off his shoulder. Denny, oblivious as ever, just smiled.

Three years ago, I would have told Denny to run so fast he'd leave a puff of smoke behind him. Now? Well, you know, Denny, she is a nice girl, and you could use some stability in your life. You're not getting any younger, you know.

And that, friends, says more about me and my mindset these days than I care to admit. After all … I'm gonna be 28 soon too.

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