A few days ago, my wife and dog headed out to a state park to hike for a few hours. Before driving home, we found ourselves in a nearby rural town. Utica, Illinois has one main street in the historic 1850s-era downtown. There is a rather trendy wine store and bar, a few taverns, a gift shop, and number of small modest restaurants. Each place caterers to the locals and to people like us who come to the state parks to spend a day and then grab a bite or a beer in small town America, a town that’s simple and quaint, and with a curious combination of old and new school.
I write this not simply because it was a pleasant day, although it was, but rather because of the interactions we had with the folks in town that afternoon—little, unforgettable moments rife with promise. Not due to some great revelation, but because of their undeniable literary possibilities.
I am now writing in the shed. Not a story or a book, but just a simple scene I want to remember. I write it because what we experience in the real everyday world, in all of its trueness, can make for a wonderful moment in our writing. Yes, fiction writers make things up; it’s part of the job, but I suggest that maybe the more honest moments can become the most realistic scenes in our writing. Not because they carry some lofty literary weight, but because, if they are recorded unembellished, they can be the most authentic.
Sometimes making things up is unnecessary when it’s all right there in front of you.
* * *
The Tap House is on the corner of Mill and Canal. The old turret facade has charm but its worn and could use a coat of paint. A half-dozen metal tables line the sidewalk. It’s a sunny October afternoon.
“Hi cutie,” the woman says. She’s wearing a down vest over a flannel shirt. No makeup. Attractive but not pretty, plain in the natural way rural women appear to those from the city. “Is that a Labradoodle?” she asks.
“Poodle and retriever,” I say.
“Her mother was a black poodle,” my wife says.
The three of us, including our dog Sam, had spent the morning at Matthiessen State Park, hiking the canyons and valleys. It was just after noon.
“And who is this?” I ask. There’s a black and white dog on a leash underneath the table. It stands to attention, anticipating a friendly greeting. Its small, skinny tail twitches.
“She’s a lover not a fighter,” the woman says. The young man sitting next to her, maybe her son, smiles and agrees. It’s a pit bull, we’re told.
I bend down to pet her. Lola is her name. A year old. She nestles in for a rub around the ears.
“We have a pointer at home,” the woman says. “You know how they are. High energy. We have to take the truck out and run her twice a day. A mile-and-a-half. She runs right next to the truck. We’ve clocked her at twenty-eight miles an hour.”
What would happen in the Chicago suburbs if someone saw me doing that with Sam, running her alongside our white Subaru down a tree-lined residential street. They’d call the cops. But in Utica, it is just what you do with a high-strung dog.
Coffee is on my mind. A few places are suggested. “Not going to get any fancy coffee around here, though,” the woman says as we say goodbye.
The shop we choose is a new one just across the street. The hanging sign outside the door has a colorful peace sign on it. The place is run by a young woman from Denver, we’re told. She had a food truck out there. Sandwiches, like there, are on the handwritten menu board. The woman is fresh-faced, both arms covered in dense tattoo designs, and wears a Bears jersey, although she says she doesn’t know a thing about sports.
“I absolutely can get you some coffee,” she says, smiling from behind the counter. She fixes me a to-go cup. There’s one other person in the shop. He wears a TaylorMade golf hat, torn jeans, and a mustard-colored Carhartt jacket that’s seen better days.
“How’s your day goin’?” he asks with the hint of a slight drawl.
“You play golf?” I ask, nodding toward the cap.
“Nah,” he laughs. “My last name is Taylor, so.” He smiles a toothy, crooked grin.
James Taylor is his full name, he says. And he admits to seeing the irony in that. He doesn’t play the guitar and doesn’t sing. James was his father’s name, so he goes by Lindsey, he says. His middle name. I’m certain Lindsey wouldn’t mind me writing about him. He seems to enjoy the attention.
Lindsey has lived in Utica all his life. Good town, he says. He’s a sheet metal worker, like his father was. Says his dad did some of the sheet metal work on the Superdome in New Orleans when it was first built many years ago. When Katrina came and tore it up, Lindsey helped put in the new sheet metal. “It’s a cool thing, like a legacy, isn’t it?” he says, proudly.
I take my coffee outside and meet my wife and Sam at a small table on the sidewalk. Lindsey follows. He’s still talking, asking questions.
What state park were you at? Where’s home? Lindsey says his sister lives near Chicago. He asks about Sam—how old? girl or boy? “I’m buying a house,” he says and shows me photos on his phone of the home’s newly renovated bathroom, the new hardwood floors, and new porch. “It’s just around the corner.” He has a daughter. Two-years old. He calls the little girl’s mother his “old lady.” The way he talks about her, I’m assuming they’re not married and they don’t live together. Lindsey asks if I’m a union guy. I am, I tell him, but not his union. I’m reluctant to reveal that I’m in the Screen Actors Guild. Can’t imagine what he might think of that. Most of the folks around here are good people, he says, surveying the shops nearby. “Not the Tap House, though,” he says, pointing. “Scabs work there. Not union. The lady who runs it is a bitch,” he says, laughing. Lindsey is a fast friend now, enjoying the conversation, but suddenly pauses for a moment. “The place is like Mayberry, you know?” referencing to the old Andy Griffith Show of 1960s TV. “No Aunt Bee around here, though,” he says. “How about a Gomer Pyle type?” I ask. “Oh yeah. We call him Rick the Prick.”
Lindsey taps out a Marlboro and lights it. He steps back, blowing smoke to the side, respecting our space. Then, he reaches out his hands as if grasping something tight and hard and asks, “You know when you choke out your friend until they blackout?”
“Ah, no,” my wife and I say in unexpected unison.
“Yeah, you know. You put your thumbs on that spot on the throat and push really hard and they sort of fall asleep?”
I start to laugh, but cover my mouth and hold back.
“Well, we did that and the kid was out, man. And Rick the Prick calls the cops. We scatter like cockroaches and they chase us but leave my friend on the ground, just laying there unconscious.” Lindsey takes a drag. “Just fuckin’ right there on the grass.”
“But you just left him there, too, right?” I wonder.
“We were 13 or something. You know how that goes,” Lindsey laughs. “Hell, he was okay. He was fine.”
I wonder if the kids around Utica have enough to do.
“Yeah, people are pretty decent around here,” Lindsey continues, again looking up and down the street. “They’re big on veterans. My dad was a veteran. He was in the parade here. He had a golf cart and because he was a vet he could basically do whatever the fuck he wanted.” He releases another puff. “One parade I walked with him. I was all dressed up, too. Nice pants, a polo shirt. I wasn’t looking ratty or nothing. And I had to take a piss. I stop by that wine shop down the way there and ask if I could use the restroom.”
“Yeah, we all have to go sometimes,” I say.
“Well, the owner, this old lady, says I had to be a paying customer. Believe that? So, I ask, what if I bought that five dollar glass of wine you’re selling.”
“Makes sense,” I say.
“Right?” he says, confirming my assertion. “You know what she says?” Lindsey leans in closer. “She says, ‘I’d rather you not'” Lindsey throws his hands in the air. “You believe that shit?”
“Seems she could have accommodated you,” I say, thinking how it’s likely most people around here know Lindsey maybe a bit too well.
“So, okay, I say. I forget about it. Then go out back of the place and piss on her fence.”
Justice, it seems. Utica justice.
* * *
There are wonderful characters and good scenes all around us. Some are golden. Some are simple moments of inspiration. Will we use them in our writing? Maybe not. But capturing them, remembering them, stowing them away for another time—that is part of the craft.
Thank you, Utica, Illinois. Thank you, Lola the pit bull, and thank you, speedy pointer that chases the pickup twice a day. And thank you, Lindsey, you gave this writer a little something to think about on a sunny October afternoon.