by M.K. Sturdevant
That one particular pothole, the one on the curved ramp that takes you from the 55 by McCormick to the outbound Ryan, that black vacuous fault on the left side of the lane, that one. I know that trap so well, I don’t really think of it. I know that I’m home, in my routine, whenever I return to the city and drive and curse it and avoid it with the familiar gesture of steering slightly to the right.
I know the white stripe of the shoulder’s edge and where it starts to crack. The prairie grass has cut right through the pavement on Wentworth just south of Cermak. If the jam’s bad enough in the afternoon, you can sit and see the bluestem, tattered and tall in the median, framing the Chinese import businesses off the west side of the road.
From in here—my shell, my car—I look. I get looks. I become an exhausted but loud singer. I drive under the ‘L’ tracks on Wabash with the windows down. Where the end of each railroad tie casts a shadow onto the support beam underneath, there’s a pattern of shade—bright—shade—bright. It looks like piano keys. I sing to stay awake, I sing to Jewelers Row. My audience of pedestrians, rose-gold, and sapphires is silent on the corner.
Now at a red light in the South Loop, long columns of concrete that no longer hold anything up wear only a thin sheet of dust, art and messages. I contemplate: are these ruins? None of this could be seen from any sidewalk. I hope this light takes forever while I decipher the paved frames for some giant new basement.
There’s an anarchist’s Circle-A, a Sox cap.
There’s Danny Boy luvs saturdaze,
Fukkin R S!,
west wall X 64,
Bring the doom,
4’ no gas.
When the light turns green, my scene slides away. Now the scaffolding of the neonatal Byrne Interchange viewed from my slow Toyota is this: a hard and unforgiving earthwork. I look at the beast—dug by scraping our midden of mud and rebar-relics, our crap our plastic ostraca stapled to every bit of fence and branch. One flaccid sack of some sort flaps in a mean old tree, and I watch until the light changes again. From green to yellow to afternoon to evening.
Here, we’re a little corrupt. Here, we laugh hard. Here, yellow means go faster. But today, while this Acura tries to get in front me, all of our air and all of this morning, our mood on the way to work, is the color of concrete. The sidewalk and the clouds: gray, hard. We could be upside down.
Or there are days spent driving by the Lake, when, buckled in, we wonder what the hell is going on in front of us. So we might as well look. And the Lake looks purple then. Once it was green. Last week: opalescent under a soft sun. Sometimes it’s choppy, or laminar, then loud. Sometimes that Lake is the exact same azure of the sky, and on those days I look out at the vast expanse without any horizon and behold its infinitude as best I can. They can’t make that too expensive. So I fill myself up with its free, teal-colored beauty. I open the window and let it in.
The city giveth and the city taketh away. I whisper, yawning, annoyed, northbound. It’s all brake lights in the bottleneck where Soldier Field meets the Museum Campus. I look out towards the Shedd and change the station. I have lived here for eighteen years. Maybe mostly in this northbound lane. Maybe this is where I belong. I’ve been stopped right here, in this Corolla, so many times that I have the distinct sensation I am out of time, afloat. This could be yesterday, I think. I could be falling into the Lake’s endless horizon. I might have confused the road with the sky. Am I coming or going? In my chrysalis of a car I nurture my own silences, my profoundly unnecessary thinking. How old am I now?
I watch a seagull. It paces me all the way to at least Navy Pier. It flies easily, poops on the car in the lane next to mine, doing just fine in flight at six miles per hour.
I wonder if I would ever eat one. If it came to that. If all the money went bad and all these cars stopped running, if the Lake swallowed the Drive and all the lights went out everywhere and if I had to take the tweezers out of the center console and catch a gull and slice its neck and pluck, my wrists wet with intestines, then boil it or grill it, even eat it raw, would I?
What happens when you commute by car is this.
You will know your own roads so well you’ll feel you are hardly driving. You’ll see things you can only see from your stinking nest of a car. You’ll wake and sleep rearranging the whole city and all of its infrastructure piece by scene by snippet in your dreams. You’ll obsess over that shuttered old church you keep wanting to take a picture of, you’ll miss your favorite water towers as they disappear. You’ll know Vincennes is haunted. What world is real?
I’ve been forced to know how the city feels. There’s that gentle lift if you cut through the park from Michigan Avenue to Columbus, or the hills along the ridge from Beverly to Morgan Park; we do have elevation. And the cobblestone bald-spots under the Metra tracks in Ravenswood have a distinct rumble, and the freight rails on 127th west of Homan are laid deep, set like the graves all around. Maersk—CSX—Hapag Lloyd—Maersk. Maybe they’re hauling something I ordered. The ground quivers. Maybe the coffins are rattling too. After the long signal, our tires climb in, then bounce slowly out.
I hate commuting, I tell everyone. I’ve gotta quit. I love commuting, I tell my therapist. I’m all alone in there; I’m cozy, and I don’t want to go home. And I’m good at it, and it feels good to be good at something. That terrifying no-merge-area death-merge from the expressway downtown to the 290 West Suburbs? I’ve nailed it every time.
Too much time in my car, too much time. Time to cue up the right music for Lower Wacker. To tunnel up, tuck in, be Batman, round the curve and keep an eye on the car behind you, because no one expects that one stoplight halfway through. Then take a turn up the Michigan Avenue bridge. Once, we were jammed up, right on the bridge. I looked down. Under my tires, the brown lattice, under that, the green river. And we had nowhere to go, feeling the bridge bounce and shudder. And that’s when I begin thinking, about love sex dying cremation first kisses, drowning, a good slice of pizza, and the possibility of a nationwide strike in protest of working too much and making too little, and the beauty of a city that once was affordable and O how beautiful did I say that? About the way the high-rises send columns of darkness straight up into space on nights when downtown is ablaze at street level, and well, we should be able to goddam live right here. All of us.
But we belong to non-worlds. We roam.
After so many mornings and hours and addresses, I arrive at my destination, having forgotten how to participate. I arrive at my home, if it’s mine. Where I live, insofar as I live, seems neither here, nor there.
M.K. Sturdevant’s writing has appeared in multiple places, Orion, Flyway, Alluvian, Newfound, Kestrel, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in the Lily Poetry Review. She was listed among the Top 25 Emerging Writers with Glimmer Train Press in 2017, and was a finalist for the Montana Prize in Fiction in 2019. She lives and works in the Chicago area, focusing on mixed-genre explorations of the Anthropocene.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 6 • February 2020
Header image by Phillip Capper