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41 For several years now I’ve wondered in a slow-burning ache if I’ll ever be able to chronicle what it’s like to live in a small town in the middle of Michigan that’s struggling to hang on, if I can somehow take the trains passing through night after night, offering up their long, drawnout wails, and make of them, or of the water tower standing above abandoned oil fields or the rickety porches on the south side of town, a kind of sense, if only to myself, in order to say this is what it’s like here, without sanctimony or censure or the least trace of sentimentality. It’s very important, perhaps even critical, to say something about a town like Alma, to arrive at some understanding of it, even if it’s partial and imperfect, to tug on the sleeve of the cosmos and inquire after this particular tiny corner of its staggering debris field and set forth an accurate portrait about the place where I have lived for almost eight years now. How I came to be here isn’t that important, only the fact that enough time has passed for the spirit of this place to gradually fill me up so that I must appear like someone afflicted with bouts of inexplicable sighing, sudden bursts of exhalation that suggest resignation or ennui but which are just a way to maintain stability in the midst of the town’s continuous outpouring of moon vibes. Alma’s downtown storefront windows are unlike any other windows in the world. It seems that you can’t really look through them. When you try to, they instead appear to frame your entire existence in Robert Vivian Town nonfiction 42 ecotone some as yet unnamed and ghostly dimension no one has ever defined. There’s no way to escape the gravity of the reflections in these windows, no way to elude what they have in store for you, how they seem to do the work of X-rays connecting the living and the dead in a continuum that goes on forever. Maybe this borders on the preposterous, teeters at the edge of good taste. But stand a few minutes in front of Stacey’s Men’s Shop or the Cobbler Shop and look for yourself, with a continued stare, at this same glass plunging down into fathomless depths, see around your reflection the aura of a gray sky pressing down and passing cars whose brake lights offer only a fleeting reprieve. Litter and blowing trash flock like torn paper birds in startling, catastrophic numbers in the fallow fields behind Wal-Mart, punctuated here and there by itinerant trash bags that manage to play their ragged arpeggios if you’re close enough to hear them. This is a distinctly forlorn and landlocked type of music usually reserved for wandering mystics, the kind of music that draws its inspiration from the spectral wastes of a man-made void. But above the fields and their legions of piping trash you can still watch the pastel bands of the sun going down over a distant tree line as radiant as anywhere else in the world and know that God and beauty are as mysteriously and abundantly here as they are in the fading twilight of a Tuscan vineyard or a wine glass filled with chardonnay glowing on a sunlit table. At the Big Boy diner north of town, the forty-foot monstrous mandoll out front lofts a burger the circumference of a tractor tire, his garish expression so demonic and naive you can see it for miles around, illuminated by a searchlight driving its wedging V deep into the night. To sit in a booth at Big Boy in the middle of winter is to come in contact with something so overwhelmingly sad and American as to be indistinguishable from facing your own mortality in the form of a trip to the salad bar arranged on a melting bank of ice. The ketchup-stained menus are bendable placards from the rough proximity of exile, where the missing children are. A few years ago I sat in a booth at this Big...


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pp. 40-46
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