Jesse Millner: The Bus Driver's Book of the Dead

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  MEMOIR by Jesse Millner
Polish Wedding  Devolution  Aliens Among Us  Eddie Jones  Dave   Tom Marion
Starved Rock State Park  The Alcoholic Point of View   My Lost Season  Listening for God  I Remember a Pet Peeve  Hair Salon Panic Attack!  
Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground

Starved Rock State Park: October 1983

My first wife, Lillian, hated her life so much she started smoking at 30. For her birthday that year, we took a weekend trip to Starved Rock State Park near Ottowa, Illinois. She smoked Kools the entire ninety minutes we drove down I-55, and as was our custom back then, we chased down a pint of Seagrams VO to the tune of humming Sears retreads on the cratered concrete.

You really should visit Starved Rock yourself, warm yourself before the enormous fireplace in the main lodge that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30s. And the park itself is beautiful where it pushes up against the Illinois River, so it’s all bluffs and rocky hills looking down toward the slow-moving water.

My wife and I hiked those steep trails and marveled at the thick woods that made us feel as though we’d found a great wilderness, and we had, though the darkness was within ourselves and not framed by fragrant pine or solid oak. We tried to drink the darkness away and on Saturday night we even scurried into Ottawa and stopped for dinner at a bar overlooking the river. The special was all the fried smelt u could eat for three bucks, so we gobbled down a school of the greasy little fishes, following each mess of smelt with a cold Pabst draft until we’d forgotten our wilderness beneath the high ceilings of the tavern, but around midnight it was time to head back to our cabin where we didn’t have sex but instead made love to a few shots of whiskey as my wife curled smoke rings across the Formica kitchen table. We didn’t talk; you know how alcohol sometimes takes your speaking away, dumbs down your tongue until even the silence is slurred. So, we sat there and drank. A little moonlight crept between the ugly lime curtains and the kitchen clock clicked out the slow minutes before dawn.

If you go to Starved Rock State Park, I recommend early fall when the leaves are turning, when the air is crisp and when the light softens toward dusk in colors that are almost shades of the very leaves the late light falls upon as the sun sinks somewhere west of Iowa, and the Midwest darkness swallows the whole world into its sea. If you go to Starved Rock, avoid the all u can eat smelt, the bitter Pabst Blue Ribbon beers, the dusky cabins—it’s much better to stay in the main lodge with its immeasurable fireplace. And by all means, have breakfast in the cafeteria, the buttermilk pancakes are excellent, and you can look out through a huge picture window toward the sparkling Illinois, and even in autumn there will be a late sailboat or two slicing the cool water. Maybe you’ll find a little peace beneath the autumn moons that flare out each night of your visit, rising above the outlines of the dying trees, the ones whose branches will soon flash skeletal shadows over the winter ground.

After that drunken birthday weekend we returned to the city where autumn moons are called hunter’s moons because they rise fat and red out of the October lake. Soon my wife smoked two packs a day and became skeletal herself. That winter of ’83 was the coldest on record, so we drank indoors and watched the snow pile up to the windows. By January, the trip to Starved Rock had become a fairy tale, a remembrance of a magic time in the forest when things were good. By February, even the full moon was tinged with ice. By March, I slept on the couch and rose early to drink an Old Style. It was so good for my hangover, and I’d go back to sleep refreshed and dream of Starved Rock, the Illinois River, Ottawa. But I’d always wake to emptiness flowing like its own river, and by April my wife was gone and my loneliness reached flood stage, the dark water higher than my eyes until all I could see was the world of shadows beneath the current, that place so deep and dimmed the sunlight could never reach it.

If you go to Starved Rock, make sure you visit the gift shop, buy yourself one of those toy bow and arrow sets that claim to mimic the Ottawa original, and purchase some of that really good local ice cream the manager sells from behind the counter. Have a vanilla cone just as I did once. Man, that dessert was so sweet and so cold that all these years later, the memory still freezes my tongue.


© 2010, Jesse Millner

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